Link to the YouTube video of the TV3 broadcast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlrqD6YyEOs
It might be Christmas, a time when regional journos like me are sitting at home drowning our sorrows (or toasting our joys, whichever). But for the “vultures” in the national media, Christmas is a time like any other, a time when stories are made and broken, and can sometimes have the same effect on people.
I say “vultures” because I was rather torn this week when the story of Brian Lenihan’s cancer diagnosis broke, on St Stephen’s Day.
And I do call it a story, something which may offend non-media people reading this.
A number of conversations I’ve had with different people in the two days since the story broke have served only to show me that we in the media think completely differently from ‘civilians’.
Before I go into this further I will just say, for the record, that I wish Brian Lenihan the best with his illness. It must be an absolutely awful time for him and for his family and friends. My own family has been through this and I know how difficult it is. On a human level this news is among the worst you can get and I hope that he can get through it with the support of his loved ones. The media coverage, particularly when all his family had not been informed, must have been a further blow.
Going back to the story, there has been a huge amount of criticism of the manner in which it was broken. There have even been a number of Facebook groups set up a) in support of Mr Lenihan and b) to protest at TV3’s handling of the story.
The general reaction seems to be one of disgust at the way TV3 broke the story over the Christmas break, after seemingly issuing Mr Lenihan with an ultimatum – he was forced to inform people on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day whom he may otherwise not have informed for quite a while. According to the Irish Independent (link above) a number of his family members were not aware of the nature of his illness before the broadcast, at 5.30pm on St Stephen’s Day.
As one friend put it, ‘That used to be the difference between the English press and the Irish press’ – the fact that the Irish press respected personal privacy and ‘open secrets’. Like that of the affair between Charles J Haughey and Terry Keane, or the fact that Bertie Ahern was living with Celia Larkin, or the drink problems that are consistently whispered about in relation to senior politicians in this country, or a million other aspects of politicians’ and other public figures’ personal lives, .
Of course, the serious illness of a Cabinet Minister does not reflect on his character in the way that, say, an extra-marital affair or a drug problem might. But I agree with TV3 on one thing – that it will have implications for the country.
Brian Lenihan is arguably the best Minister serving in the current Cabinet. He is constantly mooted as Brian Cowen’s successor, and he is generally considered intelligent, educated, and remarkably free from the insane level of populism that has tainted so many of his colleagues.
The fact that he is so seriously ill and may have to step down in 2010 is nothing short of a disaster for a Government that has weathered some major storms in 2008 and 2009, against all the odds. That would prompt a Cabinet reshuffle, bickering among backbenchers, junior ministers and senior ministers who will all want a sweetener (especially after taking fairly hefty pay cuts), and will throw Cowen’s Government right back into the mire it has just, miraculously, climbed out of. Public support for Lenihan is far in excess of that for Cowen (even before the diagnosis), and he has been an asset to the Government. Without him, it’s possible that the public will completely turn away from the Government, and the ‘buy-in’ it has been so anxious to achieve, will be lost.
Having said all of that, it’s hard to see why TV3 couldn’t have waited just one more day. I understand the urgency of wanting to be first with a story. During last year’s Galway Water Crisis (‘the one with the lead’),
I was hopping out of my skin to be first, but was defeated by working for a weekly paper – the local radio station scooped me by a day, although I’d known of the story for two days before them.
What my friend said about the Irish media is true – there are still some standards that do not apply in Britain. The issue of Lenihan’s diagnosis appears to have been subject to some kind of Gentleman’s Agreement – rumours had been circulating within a very small media and political circle for over a week. And obviously a decision was taken to wait until after Christmas, for which TV3 deserve some credit. A gentleman’s agreement, however, is just like those old-fashioned pistol duels, where you are trusting the other person not to draw before you do. Somebody is always going to cheat, and you might as well be first.
And TV3 would have been afraid, with the might of RTE and that of Denis O’Brien’s twin channels, Newstalk and Today FM, that they’d be scooped. Unlikely, because most of the current affairs heavy hitters in both places – the likes of Matt Cooper, Mark Little, Pat Kenny – are all on Christmas holidays. And it’s unlikely that a story of that magnitude would be left to the fill-in journos to break – that decision would be made further up the line. RTE would’ve been unlikely to break it, because they know on which side their bread is buttered – so it was left to an independent newsroom to do so.
Ursula Halligan has been building a very strong reputation in recent years, and it remains to be seen whether this story will make or break her. It could give her the serious news credentials she is looking for, or it could make her a pariah. She can certainly forget about landing a plum job in Government Information Services – ever. Even Fine Gael wouldn’t hire her after this!
Whatever their reasoning, this appears to have been a serious error of judgment by the TV3 editorial staff. We’ve all made them, but, to judge by the level of public condemnation, this one might stick.