Don't let Rupert Murdoch decide Ireland's future

 

In whose interests did the 'Sunday Times' decide to campaign against the Lisbon Treaty? asks Sarah Carey

ALTHOUGH I spent four years obtaining a degree in history, I really only learned one lesson: when reading anything - newspaper, essay or biography - it's wise to ask oneself: "Who is behind this and what is their agenda?" Sometimes the answer is easy. Everyone has an agenda of some sort, and most of the time they'll be upfront about it. Other times the stated agenda is only a cover, and one has to hunt for hidden motives.

For anyone relying on the Sunday Times for information on its continuing coverage of the Lisbon Treaty, they would do well to ask themselves those two questions. For over three years, I worked for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, which, like other British newspapers the Sun, News of the World and the Times, plus Sky television, is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International. During my three years with the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, I was only vaguely aware that it was a distant outpost of Murdoch's empire.

We seemed to be like the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. The Eye of the evil Lord Sauron was rarely fixed on our petty domestic issues and we got on with the business of political and social opinion without any comment from Wapping. Except for Lisbon.

Some months before the date for the referendum was announced, I told Irish editor, Frank Fitzgibbon, that I was eager to write a piece in favour of Lisbon. At the time, we seemed to be in agreement on the political imperative that the treaty be passed, though it's possible I misunderstood his views. We also discussed the fact that Murdoch's well known pro-US-hawkish views would obviously be the opposite, but we shrugged our shoulders.

Time passed, the date was set and I staked my claim to the pro-treaty column. But something had changed. Fitzgibbon told me that not only would I not be writing a pro-treaty column, but no other writer anywhere in the paper would either. This was not a matter for Sarah's precious little ego, but a cover-to-cover ban on any pro-treaty comment. Apparently since our first conversation, Fitzgibbon had looked into his heart and discovered the democratic deficit. From seemingly being in favour of Lisbon, he was now cheerfully banning all opinion favourable to Lisbon from the paper.

He argued that only broadcasters were legally required to present balanced coverage, and that as a privately-owned newspaper the Sunday Times was under no legal obligation to offer opposing views. I countered that while this was legally correct, he was under an ethical obligation to provide an alternative view, especially when that view tallied with the extraordinary political consensus that Lisbon was good for Ireland. He claimed he was under no such obligation - and that was that.

I should have written the column anyway and resigned if he refused to print it. But I was in no financial position to go around resigning on a point of principle, and I backed off. So no kudos to me. Part of me accepted that Fitzgibbon had a point: everyone is entitled to their agenda. The problem only arises - which it did in this case - when it's not really your agenda at all.

In Britain, buying a particular newspaper title is an explicit statement of political allegiance. Here, the lines are blurred and so our sensitivity to the political motives behind editorial policy is dulled. Sure, The Irish Times has its whole Dublin 6-intolerant-liberal thing going on. There is also the problem of a "newsroom culture" in which without any actual coercion, journalists will eagerly adopt each other's views. The Sunday Independent runs brazen campaigns such as the one to canonise Bertie Ahern and demonise Brian Cowen. But even the Sindo has Gene Kerrigan, so regardless of what paper one buys, Irish readers can expect that writers' political agendas will be both upfront and balanced out, allowing them to casually absorb different opinions across the political divide.

This was not the case with the Sunday Times referendum coverage.

When I mentioned to people that there was no pro-Lisbon comment, most professed disbelief but also an admittance that they hadn't really noticed. This lack of awareness was a big part of the problem. It thwarts our ability to process what is honest opinion, what is consensus and what is fact. Context is everything when processing opinion, and only hard-core political Irish readers could place the coverage in the right context.

But the real question is the motivation behind the policy. Politicians and commentators who argued for the Lisbon Treaty did so because they believed it was in Ireland's best interests. Of those who argued against the treaty, some believed they were also acting in the national interest, even if I personally disagree with them. But others cannot say the same. In whose interests did the Sunday Times campaign against the Lisbon Treaty to the exclusion of all favourable comment? Was it because they really believed that Ireland is best served by wrecking the treaty or because Eurosceptic views were imported, or worse, imposed, from Britain?

I'm not saying that anyone who voted No didn't care about Ireland. But I am saying that certain constituencies who argued against Lisbon did so not because they believed it to be the right thing, but for other reasons. If our entire political establishment was dismayed because Lisbon was defeated and the cheers from Wapping were ringing in our ears, doesn't that make anyone wonder whether No was the right answer to the question?

If we're lucky we might get to vote twice on Lisbon, and this time I'll be allowed to argue whatever my opinion happens to be. When reading other people's opinions, it would serve you well to think twice and ask that old Latin question: Cui bono? Who benefits? Us or them?

Let that answer aid your reply to the next question: Yes or No?