Hell hath no fury like a Eurocrat scorned

A leaked briefing reveals why officials think they lost the Irish referendum: because there’s ‘too much’ press freedom.

Tara McCormack

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It would be an understatement to say that the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, in a referendum on 12 June this year, caused a stir in other European Union capitals. Euro-elites were practically foaming at the mouth in anger at Ireland. In the run-up to the referendum, major European figures queued up to warn Ireland to vote the ‘right way’. And in the aftermath of the Irish people’s ‘No’ vote, leading Euro-politicians castigated the Irish for being ungrateful wretches who should have been thankful for all the handouts they have received since joining the European Community in 1972.

Initially, some believed that the Irish would be asked to vote again. This Double Jeopardy approach to democracy had been taken before in Ireland: when the electorate rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001, they were simply made to vote a second time. This time round, however, the Euro elites were so severely shaken by the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty – coming so soon after the French and Dutch people’s rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 – that they were unsure whether to risk a second vote. On the possibility of a second Irish referendum, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said frankly: ‘The question is how can we prepare it so that it can be won.’ (1) So instead of rushing towards another Irish referendum, the EU seems to have adopted a strategy of ‘business as usual’.

However, we should not assume that all is ‘forgiven and forgotten’. Earlier this month, the Irish Times made public an apparently private briefing paper written by the European Commission (EC), which was mysteriously leaked. The briefing argues that the Irish media are in the grip of foreign Eurosceptic hands (2). The main trend, the briefing outlines, is that objectivity in Ireland’s print and broadcast media has been reduced – and this may have impacted on people’s voting habits.

Specifically, the briefing highlights the fact that more and more Irish people read Irish versions of British newspapers, such as the Irish Sun or the Irish Sunday Times. Both the Sun and the Sunday Times are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. And, according to the EC briefing, the ‘Murdoch press’ – a name that is sure to have Irish liberals shaking their heads over their fairtrade coffee – is increasingly influential in Ireland and is tightly controlling the editorial lines of newspapers. It is rumoured, says the briefing, that the Irish Sunday Times has refused contributions from staff members who are pro-EU. There has also, complains the briefing, been a rise in the number of religious publications in Ireland, and these are generally anti-EU because they are suspicious of the EU’s liberal attitudes on abortion and homosexuality.

The Irish people do not seem to fare much better with their broadcast media either. The briefing points out that there has been a shift from the more serious, news-focused state broadcaster RTE (Radio Telefís Éireann) towards more local and entertainment-based radio and TV channels.

However, in the EC’s eyes, it is on the world wide web where things have really spun out of control. The rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’, blogs and alternative websites not linked to the dominant media groups, has caused real problems for the future of the EU, apparently. The briefing warns that: ‘The internet has allowed increased communication between citizen groups away from government and traditional media dominated sources.’

For example, the blogosphere, says the briefing, was overwhelmingly negative towards the Lisbon Treaty. Apparently, where the ‘No’ campaign released creative and witty videos and songs through websites such as YouTube, official bodies, such as the Referendum Commission, used the new media ineffectively. According to the EC, this made it difficult for pro-EU officials and activists to connect with a ‘younger, internet-savvy audience’.

The conclusion of the briefing paper is that: ‘In the six years since the Nice Referendum, the media landscape in Ireland has been altered. Irish citizens and opinion formers are being given more choice of media from different news outlets. The mainstream traditional press, TV and radio outlets are competing for space with new niche outlets.’ The EC can only see this as a bad thing, which has harmed the case for Europe in Ireland. The changing ‘media landscape’ played a vital role in generating the ‘No’ vote in Ireland, says the briefing (3).

To sum up, then: when they are not reading Murdoch’s all-powerful, brainwashing, anti-EU propaganda, the gullible people of Ireland are being drawn towards anti-EU religious sources, or, even worse, the internet – a space which, ‘given the simplicity of the “No” campaign messages’, has ‘proven to be easily malleable during the campaign and pre-campaign period’, says the EC. In short, simple-minded readers are being seduced by simplistic messages on blogs and YouTube videos, which, horror of horrors, are separate from the Irish government and its line on the EU. When the EC says that the internet proved to be ‘easily malleable’, is it really talking about the Irish people, who it seems to view as bits of putty that can be squished and re-formed by a funny video or an op-ed in a foreign-owned newspaper?

The EC makes no attempt to prove there is a link between the changing ‘media landscape’ and the ‘No’ vote. Indeed, it seems to get its messages mixed up. On one hand, the EC briefing warns of Murdoch controlling too much of the press in Ireland – yet on the other, it is equally unhappy with the rising number of independent internet sources. Moreover, the briefing entirely neglects to explain why the Irish people voted ‘No’ to the Nice Treaty at the start of the decade… After all, back then the media, as the briefing admits, was mostly still in the hands of the reliable Irish government and there was far less internet activity than there is today.

The real point of the briefing, it seems, is to argue that the ‘No’ vote was in some way illegitimate. You don’t have to be a master of textual deconstruction to work out what is being said in this document leaked to the Irish press by the EC: the ‘No’ vote did not really reflect the democratic will of the Irish electorate, many of whom rejected Lisbon not for any rational reasons but because they were led astray by a foreign, pernicious, Eurosceptic media or by uncontrollable bloggers. As a result of the changing media landscape, the stupid Paddies can no longer be relied upon to hold the right opinions on the EU.

In truth, the ‘No’ vote in Ireland expressed people’s sense of alienation and disgruntlement with the EU oligarchy and their distant, aloof rulers in general. In this cynical briefing, which was cynically leaked, European officials reveal their elitist and censorious instincts, their distaste for a free and mixed media, which apparently allows for too much communication between citizens outside of government control. Normally when European officials castigate some Eastern European or African state over their electoral procedures, they argue that the lack of non-governmental sources of information is a big problem – in Ireland, however, they think there are too many non-governmental sources of information.

Beneath the cool and ‘factual’ nature of this EC briefing, there lies a snobbish and contemptuous attitude towards the Irish voters and the peoples of Europe more broadly. Let’s hope the Irish people brush this briefing aside, in the same way they brushed Lisbon aside.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in European Union studies and International Relations at the University of Westminster. She is producing two debates as part of this year’s Battle of Ideas festival: The state we’re in: What is the point of British foreign policy? on Thursday 9 October, and Is America still the world’s policeman? on Sunday 2 November.

(1) Lisbon treaty: Pressure on Ireland for second vote, Guardian, 19 June 2008

(2) Irish media now more eurosceptic, warns EC report, Irish Times, 2 September 2008

(3) Briefing paper available here.

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