ONE of the most notable features of last year's referendum campaign was the strong anti-Lisbon sentiment of Rupert Murdoch's News International papers in Ireland – the Sunday Times, the Sun and the News of the World. In view of their combined circulation, the newspapers' strong No push last year was regarded as a not insignificant factor in the defeat of the Lisbon referendum. But there has been little evidence of that approach from the Murdoch titles in Lisbon II.
Declan Ganley's re-emergence into the Lisbon campaign via an interview with the News International-owned Wall Street Journal had prompted speculation that the Murdoch empire would be behind a late, great push for the No side.
Ganley did do an interview with the Sunday Times published on the day that he formally announced his return to the campaign, but he had also done an interview with the non-Murdoch-owned Irish Daily Mail the previous day.
There was a Wall Street Journal editorial which accused the Yes side of resorting to "patent absurdities" and of peddling "phantom terrors" to scare people into voting yes. Ganley's Libertas immediately moved to endorse the editorial, but its impact fizzled out pretty quickly, despite claims from the No side that one of the world's most eminent business newspapers was now endorsing its arguments.
And crucially, the Irish editions of News International's three titles here seem to be adopting a much more neutral line compared to 15 months ago. An editorial in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times last weekend, headlined 'Voting by fear is a sorry state', was critical of both the Yes and No camps.
"Confused? You should be. According to the Yes side, if we reject the Lisbon treaty at the second time of asking, the cost of financing our international borrowing will increase and investors will uproot their operations before decamping to friendlier climes. The No side is equally apocalyptic, predicting that a yes vote will result in abortion on demand, conscription into a European army and a lowering of the minimum wage," the editorial opened.
It went on to note that while the No side had anticipated that dire economic conditions would leave the government struggling for support, in reality "many frightened voters see this as the best reason to give in to Brussels. Not for the first time, self-interest is proving to be a powerful motivator".
The closing lines of the piece did seem more tilted towards the No side. While a No vote would raise what the editorial pointedly claimed were "unjustified questions about our relationship with Europe (a referendum means voters have a choice, does it not?), it would also make the EU think again about how it wants to manage its expansion. It might even encourage the EU to engage in greater consultation with the 500 million citizens who are increasingly subject to its rules and regulations".
But it was effectively left to readers to make up their own minds, and there was no comparison with the strong No line that the newspaper took in the first Lisbon referendum. The same goes for the Sun and the News of the World.
So why the change? One government source puts it down to the very different economic circumstances and the resulting swing in attitudes among voters in favour of Lisbon. Newspapers tend not to like being on the losing side. "They were in danger of alienating themselves from their readership and as a result they have toned down considerably and their views are much less pronounced this time around", the source said.