It’s been one week since the Irish government unveiled their â‚¬40,000 (about 52,000 USD) multimedia communication portal, and it looks like it was money well spent. MerrionStreet.ie is designed to give citizens, journalists, and any other interested party a transparent look inside the workings of the Irish government, through press releases, videos, images and more. While some bemoan the website as just a place for the government to spin stories to show themselves in a positive light, there is no doubt that it illustrates the allure of the social web to governments of all types.
Joining the United States and Britain as an early adopter of a truly dynamic web presence, Ireland has covered all the bases when it comes to social media. Anyone can now follow the Irish government on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Flickr directly from their website. Their Twitter account, for instance, is quite active, and directs followers to legislation, press releases, studies, news reports and more concerning the government. This will likely be an extremely useful tool for journalists, as they can find all “official” statements and publications in one place.
From the website’s mandate, it appears as though the government is positioning the portal as a news site:
MerrionStreet.ie will review the wide range of government activity and then report certain key events as news. All government press releases will be accessible from our website – either by way of RSS feed or by way of links to all government departments. But our central task will be to take a variety of events and report on them objectively, in the language of a news bulletin. We will also feature ‘Issues’ where useful thematic information, not tied to a particular date, is presented.
And they are careful to avoid stepping on the toes of journalists, explicitly stating that they do not want to “create a competition with traditional media in terms of deadlines, scope or scoop.”
However, there are some who accuse the government of an overly high price-tag and unrealistic positive spin. One of the loudest dissenting voices in Ireland is the independent newspaper the Independent, whose columnist Michael Brennan decries the “highly paid spin doctors” trying to “control the bad news” that has otherwise been plaguing the Irish government lately. He also sees the site as a money sinkhole at a time when budgets are tight.
A website like this should not be taken purely as gospel – journalists and citizens alike must question and follow up on any piece of official communication they read. Thinking of web portals like MerrionStreet.ie as 24/7 televised press conferences might be a useful analogy. Rather than accepting what is said at a press conference as truth, those concerned must verify what was said and hold it up against their own values and knowledge. Just like the press conference, a government’s presence online should be just one of several sources of information and opinion. However, it is a pleasure to see governments like Ireland embracing transparency and web-based communication, using social media for two-way conversations, and keeping politics in general current and relevant to an increasingly plugged-in world.