Posted tagged ‘privacy’

All the news that’s fit to print

December 29, 2009

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.


Just between you and me

March 4, 2009

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently a professor at Dartmouth College in the United States got into difficulty when what she thought was her largely private home page on the social networking site Facebook appeared in a student newspaper; which was unfortunate, because on that page she admitted taking materials for her lectures from Wikipedia and made some derogatory comments about colleagues. The faculty at the College took all this in their stride and not much happened, but it may be that such incidents will make academics cautious about venturing into the world of social networking.

In fact the online world more generally can be a hazardous place if you are given to frank comment. Back in the early 1990s when I first became a regular emailer, a friend of mine who had been doing this for much longer told me: ‘You should never put into an email to anyone what you don’t want your mother to read or what you don’t want to see quoted on the front page of the newspapers’. I understood the wisdom of that advice when the latter occurrence happened to me a few years ago; I inadvertently posted an email intended for four people to a much larger group, and the slightly awkward content (I had expressed my irritation at something) found its way into the Irish Times on what was probably a slow news day. Served me right.

Of course, very little of what we do on the internet is really private. Whatever we do, and however quietly we think we do it, we leave easily found traces of it all over the place. Far better, then, to think of the internet as very large room, where we can stroll around, and even spend confidential moments in a quiet corner; but we are still in view. Seen positively, we are part of a community that is both larger and at the same time more intimate than anything we can easily find in ‘real life’. We are able to experience both the risks and the personal rewards of this community membership.

When I write something by email or on a website, occasionally I stop to reflect that what I am writing could easily become public property, either through error or misjudgement, or in my case also through the Freedom of Information Act. But I don’t mind. I am not here to conspire or hide, I am here to experience the ebb and flow of this vast opportunity for interpersonal contact. I am here, I hope, to open my mind.