All the news that’s fit to print

One of the key questions for modern journalism is about where to draw the line between news which the public have a legitimate right and expectation to know and items that are really just an intrusion into a person’s privacy. And before we go down that road, there is a corresponding question that needs to be asked of us, the general public: what do we want the media to tell us, and are we consistent between what we say in answer to that question and what we are prepared to read or listen to?

Of course the trigger for such a discussion right now would be the report by the Irish television station TV3 that the Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan TD, has pancreatic cancer, a story they released despite the fact that they knew he had not told all of his friends and family and was intending to do so over the Christmas period. As far as I know, TV3 have not stated why they released the news in this way; the only statement from the station that I have come across was from Andrew Hanlon, Director of News at the station, who said: ‘We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family’. Apart from the attempt to portray the station as having behaved sympathetically, I cannot see in that statement why they did it at all. To be fair, it is perfectly correct to report on the Minister’s illness, as his role is crucial in the government and his personal ability to handle the issues facing the economy is a relevant issue; but there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week.

My own view is that the station got it badly wrong and behaved inappropriately in a very sensitive matter. The issue here is one of timing rather than of substance. And of course the reason why they did it was that they believed that it would provide them with publicity that would be commercially useful to them; the tut-tutting of the other media was not only not a problem, but perhaps was an additional bonus in PR terms. Such news items work for the media because, in the end we, the public, go for it. We may join the ranks of the tut-tutters, but we do so having read or listened to the item.

The problem in all of this is that it is difficult to formulate a set of principles on the public interest in such matters, or indeed on public accountability for those who exercise power, which is clearly set apart from what is just salacious interest. The French media did not report the existence of François Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter while he was President, although the story was well known. Was that the correct position? Or was it right to suggest, as some British journalists did at the time, that Mitterrand’s marital infidelity should have been fair game because it showed that he could not be trusted to keep his word, and that this was a matter of public interest?

Generally speaking, it is my view that the Irish media behave with a significant degree of responsibility. But even here we may need to develop a better understanding of what constitutes news that should be printed (or broadcast), and what is simply a matter of private concern that the public does not have a right to know.

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21 Comments on “All the news that’s fit to print”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    This whole thing contrasts starkly with the attitude that would have held in the US (there wouldn’t have been 4 hours notice never mind 48) and is a bit too reminiscent of the cosy relationship between government and its favoured media outlets in the past.

    The reality is that BL is not any politician. He is responsible for proposing a massive programme of spending cuts and the indenturing of future generations through NAMA.

    His health has also been speculated upon in the past (particularly since McWilliams and the garlic) and at this point in the US questions would be being asked about exactly when BL received his diagnosis and what if any impact this had on his decision making. That is not to say the American attitude is the correct one but I think the Irish one is a bit too close to the reflexively sympathetic to be in the public interest.

    What’s done is done. Mr Cowen should assume the role of Minister for Finance again pro tempore while a successor is brought up to speed. Mr Lenihan should be released from his post not later than the passage of the Finance Act to concentrate on recovering his health. It is important for our creditors to know that the principal officers of the government have the nation’s fiscal recovery as their primary concern.


    • Oh, I don’t think I agree with almost any of that, Mark! The issue isn’t whether BL’s condition should be revealed, but whether there is an y public interest in this being done on December 26 rather than January 5. I just can’t see that.

      I’m also not at all sure we should say that a cancer patient should not be allowed to do his job!

  2. Vincent Says:

    Yes, I tend to concur with Mark, above. Where members of the Government are concerned all bets are off. Once the TV3 knew, I should have known 4 min later. The time it takes to dress and run a comb. They are missing the point where the News is concerned, it is not theirs, it belongs to us. So there is no commercial connection regardless what Hanlon thought. And if they thought that they could or should have commercial considerations on this type of issue, they are very very wrong.
    But one way or another they will find that this will have a commercial response, and this delay thing will have them attacked from both sides.
    Anyway, who cares, TV3 or TV6/7/8/9/44. TV3 are a bit Bill & Ted.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I think that much of the ‘news’ coverage which has followed the breaking of this story has been firmly in the realm of pointless speculation (this Sunday’s Tribune being a case in point). Nevertheless, I agree with Mark and Vincent: the story itself was a valid one, and very much in the public interest.

    We should know if a senior member of the government may not be in a position to perform his job, and we should know immediately. Secondly, I don’t accept the claim that they only waited 48 hours. I heard this story, complete with specific details of Lenihan’s illness, nearly a week before it broke, courtesy of the Law Library’s grapevine. Given that I’m a very distant branch indeed of that grapevine, then the story must have been known by professional journalists earlier than that. So I think Mark’s question is a pertinent one: when did he get that diagnosis?

    The Irish media are, in general, far too cosy with the systems of power. Far too many things are ‘known’ and circulated to those who have access to the right networks of information, but not openly discussed and reported in the press. Far too many journalists appear to consider themselves ‘insiders’ to the political system, when in fact a journalists’ job is to be a professional outsider. Consider for example some of the issues which have been the subject of tribunals in recent years – most of these would have been known about by journalists for a long time, but none of them considered it their job to do some proper reporting and break the stories. Ireland has fairly high standards in some areas of journalism, but a woeful record in what might broadly be considered investigative reporting.

    Despite loathing everything Brian Lenihan stands for, I wish him well with his health problems. Nevertheless, the news of his illness is just that: news. Only if and when he stands down from his post does it become a private issue.


    • Jilly, why do you need to know that ‘immediately’ – i.e. why would it matter to know that on Christmas Day rather than, say, January 2nd?

      And as a matter of interest, what sort of things do you believe are ‘known’ to the media but not the rest of us? Are these things we *should* know?

      • Jilly Says:

        Well, for example, it’s pretty certain that journalists knew which politicians were in the pay of which businessmen over the years. Any decent media system would have broken that story.

        As for knowing ‘immediately’, that is the media’s job. If they have a story – which they know to be true – then they should publish it. If they don’t, then they are operating as insiders, deciding what we should know and when we should know it. And that’s not their job. Publish and be damned, and all that.


        • Oh goodness Jilly, really? So you think that nobody’s privacy should ever be protected? So for example, you think the media should always report all the details they know about the background of a rape victim? No, I’m sure you don’t. But if that is so, then you also believe there is a borderline. And that really is my point. We need to have a better consensus of where that borderline is.

  4. natrium1 Says:

    For the last few days I’ve read posts about whether it was right for TV3 to put this information in the public domain on the day after Christmas, or to hold on to it until after the holidays.

    We must remember that part of TV3’s remit is to report the news, which is exactly what they did, it’s not their job to dole out news in a manner that they deem suitable for public consumption, it’s their job to report the news, as they know it to be true.

    I, like many of you saw the report, and apart from the sadness I felt for the Minister and his family, I found nothing disrespectful in the manner in which it was reported.

    I think if people want to focus on something then they should be asking the bigger question, which is ‘Who tipped off TV3’. I think we can all agree that the circle of people who were in a position of knowing that piece of sensitive information, would at that point would have been very small, and secondly there is no way that TV3 would have ran with that story if they didn’t have it cold.

    The final point is would people prefer that this story was reported first and with dignity, in the Irish media, or would they have preferred to hear it on Sky news, or read about it in a non national tabliod.

    At this point I would like to offer my support and best wishes to the Minister and his family, in what must be a difficult time for them.

  5. Steve Says:

    I don’t believe the way TV3 broke the news was morally justifiable. I believe it was simply wrong, that they should have waited until he had let his family and friends know in the way he wanted and in his own time. It may have been justifiable from the point of view of letting people know the status of an important minister in view of his job. Or maybe it was justifiable from the very simplistic point of view that TV3 should just report the news. But in my opinion neither of those, nor any other justification I’ve heard, make what they did acceptable. They seem to have taken away a man’s right to tell his family and friends in his own way in his own time. He’s a public figure and granted that loses him some privacy in a lot of situations, and this is certainly something that affects his ability to do his job, but this is a much more serious situation than normal. There should have been some basic human consideration. Two days notice is not basic human consideration and noting that other countries do things differently doesn’t actually make TV3’s relative restraint any more acceptable, it just shows how much worse the media elsewhere can be. The public interest could have waited. I don’t often find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the writer of this blog, but this for me says it all: “there can be no real argument that this needed to be known during the Christmas holiday and could not have waited another week”. The public interest did not ‘need’ to be satisfied so soon, and in such an abrupt and insensitive way. It could have waited until he was ready. How would waiting a week or two have affected the country in any negative way whatsoever? It’s not like the week before an election, or something important happening in the Dail or whatever, it’s over the holidays. Clearly I can’t say it’s none of our business… but it could have waited if for nothing more than a little consideration for the privacy of the man and his family. Not that I like, agree with, or have any respect for what the man says or does in office, but on a basic human level everyone should have the option of disclosing their illnesses to family and friends in their own way and time.
    Although… maybe there’s altogether too much jumping the gun going on. Maybe he’s fine with it. We’ll soon see I suppose, when he makes whatever statement he’s going to make.

    • Vincent Says:

      I will absolutely guarantee to you, Steve, that the UK, the US, the German along with whomever you care to mention, knew about his condition within hours of his getting it from his medical team. And if the Foreign sections of these Governments knew, then the business section knew.
      That he did not share the information with his nearest and dearest ten seconds after getting it is very worrisome.
      I’m sorry Steve, but what Minister of Finance did was wrong. I wish things were different. I wish I could say what tv3 did was truly the major error. But the Minister left us exposed, tv3 compounded this, and therefore cannot be in trust.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    In my opinion, whoever leaked this information deserves to be horsewhipped. All this stuff about the public needing to know, and what they do in the US is pure nonsense. Only a fool would say “the minister left us exposed”. There are no immediate implications for public affairs and the guy should have been allowed to handle the matter in his own way in a reasonable time. Christmas, the season of good will? My arse.


  7. Interesting comments! Though I wasn’t really intending to focus that much on Brian Lenihan, but rather on the general issue of privacy and the media. I’m not sure I am getting much of a sense how others feel about that. I suspect that the person of Brian Lenihan has, for some, distorted this a little.


  8. I might just finally say here that it is *not* my view that incidents such as this should make a case for privacy legislation designed to censor news reporting. Nor am I in favour of the use of libel laws to restrict reporting. My point here was about whether media organisations should look more closely at the balance between news reporting and public accountability on the one hand, and the appropriate claim to privacy by people (including those with a public profile) on the other.

    No doubt it is right that newspapers and broadcasters should err on the side of reporting what they know on most occasions, but sometimes they should also allow persons a degree of human dignity that may, occasionally, be best protected by a decision not to report something in which there is no legitimate public interest.

  9. Mark Dowling Says:

    What the public is interested in is not by definition in the public interest, no matter what certain red top journos think. However, the health of the Minister for Finance in this situation is, yes, a matter for the public interest. He stood for public office and accepted senior ministerial rank, and indeed did so knowing what the health issues of a senior politician meant to the country in the matter of his late father.

    I think that in the main, people with life threatening diseases find solace in their work as a way of combating it. But this is pancreatic cancer and he is the person who is primarily responsible for NAMA. The normal rules don’t apply.


    • Actually yes, I agree that normal rules don’t apply. But it doesn’t follow from this that he shouldn’t continue in office. That’s a judgement that will need to be made in the context of the medical advice and an assessment of how he will be able to deal with the issues that arise. This is the government’s brightest star (whether you agree with his politics or not), and I wouldn’t immediately jump to any conclusions about whether he is in a position to continue.

      But I agree that it’s a relevant issue.

  10. Vincent Says:

    Sorry, you are in error. BL holds one of the few offices that matter on this island.


    • Ah Vincent, I am in error all the time! 🙂

      However, just to be precise, I am not at all arguing that the office *doesn’t* matter or that there is no legitimate public interest in the story; my argument only concerns the timing, and I still haven’t seen any comment here that would make a case for TV3’s timing having been right.

      • Vincent Says:

        None can make such a case. How can they, when they were shown up as being grasping. FF might have forgiven them for going to Air in a News Flash or their 5.30 slot on the day they had this confirmed, something I feel they should have done. But this will never be forgiven by FF.

  11. kevin denny Says:

    TV3 broadcast a rumour, without a source on St Stephens Day. Yes BL is in an important position but the news (IF it was that and it was only a rumour) had no significance for public policy. There was nothing that couldn’t have waited: TV3 just wanted a scoop and didn’t care what they had to do to get one.
    All this talk about the public having a right to know is baloney. This is nothing to do with FF or NAMA (neither of which I am a fan of) it is to do with common decency.


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