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.