Scoop? Brian Lenihan’s cancer diagnosis

Link to the YouTube video of the TV3 broadcast:

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.



  1. Halligan’s frequent use of the past tense in describing Lenihan was unforgivable. The whole affair raised serious questions as to her and TV3’s objectivity and partiality.

  2. To give someone just 2 days to tell their family, leaving aside friends, that they have cancer (which we still haven't had confirmation of, although Brian's son has thanked people on Facebook for the group) was just callous. Could it not have waited until the Minister had decided HE was ready to tell the nation the whole story.I don't care how big the story is, if it was any other member of cabinet I don't think they would have done it.

  3. I thought the report of the Ministers illness was appalling. Who really needed to know. It was almost as if lthey were reporting an obituary. John Crown didn't cover himself in glory. IS this a matter that can be referred to the BAI ?

  4. Derek, I do agree that the manner in which it was broken was very insensitive – having watched the report again I'm particularly squirmy about Prof Crown's involvement. Very bad call – it should have been a political analyst. Bad case of playing the man not the ball. In relation to it being other members of Cabinet – if it had been Cowen they would. Other members of Cabinet are not as important.Laura, I'm not sure about the BAI. I would think they will probably have complaints about it already. If they are back after Christmas…

  5. Dee, I think it was an issue of huge public importance and in the public interest should certainly have been news. I didn't see the TV3 coverage and I would hope that such news would always be delivered respectfully but if the man responsible for creating the two most sweeping changes, (Nama and the bank guarantee scheme) to the Irish Financial system since we joined the EURO is likely to be sidelined even for such a personally tragic situation then we the people should know as soon as possible.These changes are far from fully effected and as such a change of personel at the helm there, is an issue of public interest. I would differentiate this situation completely from someones marital status or personal relationships which I think unless they are likely to have a direct political effect are none of we the peoples buisiness…and I hate both schemes just for the record….but wish Brian all the best and would encourage everyone else not to write him off with the diagnosis – that, I feel is disrespectfull- here's hoping we 'll be voting him out and he'll be fighting back next elections!!

  6. what does a political analyst know about pancreatic cancer, they backed up their report with the appropiate expert, well done them, for that atleast, they played the disease ,to simply say he has P C and leave it at that would have been more more devastating and confusing

  7. Ivan – "I was hopping out of my skin to be the first" with the Galway (lead) water crisis story. Sour grapes on that, yes. Being pipped to the post is never good. But that has little relevance to this issue apart from illustrating the natural competition between journalists to break a story. Read a bit more carefully before casting aspersions next time, maybe?!Sarah – I do agree with you that this story was of public interest because of the implications of the Minister for Finance (as opposed to Lenihan per se) potentially being unable to fulfil his functions, but not with the way TV3 handled the story – you can watch the full broadcast on YouTube using the lin above.

  8. To all of those who say that this wasn't a legitimate story because it's Christmas, you're wrong.It's the biggest story, with hugely important consequences, in the past few weeks.TV3 — which is usually mediocre at current affairs — acted in absolute propriety. The two days they gave was completely adequate, given the size and importance of the story.The negative reaction among competitors is pretty poor form. And fairly suspicious. Especially coming from the likes of the Daily Mail.And no, I have zero connection with TV3, any of its shows or any of its staff.

  9. The problem here is there's a huge ethics gap in Ireland. Any reporter worthy of the name should be willing to be a pariah to government. It's not a journalist's job to sit on the news because the government won't like it. Any journalist who gives a moment's thought to whether a story might endanger her chance to work for Government Information Services should hand in her resignation immediately and go work in PR. Seriously.

  10. "Read a bit more carefully before casting aspersions next time, maybe?!"Totally correct, the formatting threw me. I was scanning paragraphs.

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