Basic human decency lacking in TV3 exposé

 

IRISH POLITICAL journalism hit a new low at 5.32pm on St Stephen’s Day. TV3’s decision to broadcast the private health details of a Government Minister was a disgrace. The tone of the specially scheduled news bulletin was disgusting, writes NOEL WHELAN

Personal health details are regarded, in data protection legislation and otherwise, as the most private of information, entitled to the strongest of protection.

I am acutely conscious that in addressing the topic today, I risk putting further focus on what should still be a private matter. However, the fact that a national news organisation claiming a public service remit in its news and current affairs output chose to put a private cancer diagnosis into the public domain in such a callous manner necessitates comment.

The St Stephen’s Day TV3 bulletin began with the newscaster revealing that Brian Lenihan had been diagnosed with cancer. This was followed by the station’s political editor on a live link from outside an empty Government Buildings, giving extensive details of the diagnosis of the Minister’s condition.

On return to the studio, the newscaster made sure to specify the precise type of cancer allegedly involved.

What will have disturbed viewers even more, and must have horrified many medical practitioners, was what followed next: an apparently live interview from outside St Vincent’s hospital with Prof John Crown, one of the country’s top oncologists. Prof Crown went into graphic detail about what such a diagnosis could mean for a patient.

Prof Crown is not the Minister’s treating consultant and did talk in general terms about the type of cancer involved, but it was clear he knew he was being interviewed in the context of the public revelation of an individual’s case. The fact Prof Crown, who must surely have a particular understanding of how devastating a cancer diagnosis can be for patients and their families, chose to make himself available for this interview on St Stephen’s Day says much about his need for media attention.

To compound the offensive tone of the broadcast, the Crown interview was followed by a retrospective film report on the Minister’s term in office.

Broadcasting this health story had nothing to do with the public interest and everything to do with TV3 news seeking to attract attention to itself. Anyone who doubts that need only consider how station staff busied themselves that afternoon. Not only did they run earlier bottom-of-screen promos enticing viewers to watch a special news bulletin at 5.32pm, they also sent out a series of e-mails to other news organisations touting the fact they had a big story coming.

One might have thought that having made the flawed decision to broadcast this story, the TV3 news team would have spent the day planning how to do it as sensitively as possible. There was no evidence of this in the final output. TV3’s attempts to dress up its actions as being somehow in the public interest are completely transparent.

This was all about winning the race to get the story out and the latest heat in the Irish media’s race to the bottom. The bulletin was not about the substance or supposed public significance of the story. TV3 decided it would be the first to publish – irrespective of any ethical or moral consequences and irrespective of the pain caused to any individuals.

When confronted by other news organisations about the decision to run the story on St Stephen’s Day, TV3 head of news Andrew Hanlon was reported as saying the station told the Minister’s handlers it would give him 48 hours to tell his family and friends.

It is shocking that Hanlon felt entitled to impose his deadline and terms on how and when somebody who received a cancer diagnosis must deal with it and tell others about it. It reveals an arrogance on a par with that displayed by too many institutions in the past but which few would dare to display in the modern era.

The auxiliaries within TV3 who failed to confront that culture of arrogance and prevent this broadcast are equally culpable.

One could envisage a scenario where the fact that a Minister faces a health crisis would affect their departmental responsibilities and might even compel them to take leave of absence on health grounds. At that point such a story would become a public political issue.

Even then, however, it could be argued that the public would not necessarily be entitled to know the precise health condition. At that stage, the political and economic consequences, if any, would be rightly covered, debated and analysed in the news and current affairs media.

Interestingly, the TV3 St Stephen’s Day news bulletin did not focus at all on the political or economic consequences. The political editor herself said it was too early to comment on these.

That being the case, it was too soon to broadcast the story at all.

Some of the journalistic comment on this story in recent days, while critical of TV3, has focused more on the reliability of the information upon which TV3 based the story and on whether it might provoke stronger privacy laws rather than on the intrusion into somebody’s privacy. It is heartening, however, to hear journalists being prepared to question the actions of colleagues.

The public’s response has been even more heartening. The overwhelming majority were appalled.

If TV3’s intention was to improve its standing in the public eye, it failed. It also fell far short of the basic standards of human decency.

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