Eurosceptic line of Irish editions of UK papers more muted this time around


The approach of British papers has been notably different during this referendum campaign, writes MARY FITZGERALDForeign Affairs Correspondent

IN THE postmortems that followed last year’s No vote in the Lisbon Treaty referendum, the Government and several Yes campaigners were quick to seize on what they considered to be the nefarious role played by Irish editions of British newspapers noted for their Eurosceptic editorial slant.

According to some, it was not only the Sun “wot won” it for the No side, but its sister titles in Rupert Murdoch’s News International stable. These included the Sunday Times and News of the World, with a little help from the Irish edition of the Daily Mail.

Just before referendum day last year the Irish edition of the Sun enlisted Dubliner Claire Tully, a Trinity College biochemistry graduate turned glamour model, to urge its readers to vote No. In the days and weeks leading up to the June ballot, the Irish editions of the Sunday Times, the News of the World, and the Daily Mail all featured strident editorials and opinion columns calling for voters to reject the treaty.

The approach has been notably different this year. “Last year it was very much the usual Murdoch Eurosceptic line brought to Dublin,” says Michael Foley, a lecturer at the School of Media at DIT. “It has been far more muted this time round.”

Contrast the Sunday Times leader column published the weekend before the referendum last year in which it called on readers to “Be positive, vote No” with the more neutral tone of recent editorials headlined “Voting by fear is a sorry state” and “Don’t be afraid to say No” which, instead of setting out a blunt editorial line, invited readers to make up their own minds.

The Sun also appears to have diluted last year’s blatant cheerleading for the No camp.

How much do these British-owned titles matter in the debate? Figures from the most recent Joint National Readership Survey published last month show that the Irish edition of the Sun draws the second-highest readership among daily tabloids sold here, with 311,000 daily readers. The Irish Mail On Sunday was read by 295,000 people, while the Sunday Times had 371,000 readers, ranking it fourth most popular of all the Sunday papers.

However, Foley cautions against overstating the impact these newspapers had on last year’s referendum result. “It must have had some effect but it’s very difficult to judge to what extent,” he says. “I think it would be hard to say that they swung it.”

Libertas founder Declan Ganley prefaced his re-emergence in the Lisbon debate with a lengthy interview published in the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal in early September, and he has since made much use of a subsequent editorial in the same paper which accused Yes campaigners of resorting to “patent absurdities” and of peddling “phantom terrors” to frighten people into voting Yes.

Mr Ganley also seized on a column in the Financial Times by one of its associate editors, Wolfgang Münchau, in which the writer declared himself an “unenthusiastic supporter” of what he described as a “pre-crisis treaty for a post-crisis world”.

The Libertas leader has used the same line in several debates, implying that the FT was lukewarm about the treaty, an argument shot down by a recent editorial in the paper headlined “Yes please, Ireland”.

Researchers from TNS MediaMarket, an arm of the TNS media intelligence division, have analysed press coverage of the Lisbon debate since July, releasing a weekly synopsis of the coverage across 19 daily and Sunday titles sold in the Republic.

Dan Halliwell, TNS MediaMarket commercial director, noted the role personalities had played in this year’s Lisbon campaign, and subsequent press coverage. He said: “The weight behind the Yes campaign has far outweighed the No, with many high-profile people and organisations wanting to publicly express their support of the treaty.”

Mr Halliwell also noted both sides had employed “controversial and aggressive tactics” to garner column inches.