Lenihan broadcast could lead to privacy law rethink

 

ANALYSIS:TV3 had no more than a rumour about Brian Lenihan’s health, and no attributable source

THE DECISION of TV3 to run a story concerning the health of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan on St Stephen’s Day was based on rumour, with only one justification – to be first, and so gain a profile for the station.

A rumour concerning Mr Lenihan’s health was circulating around Leinster House from last Tuesday or Wednesday. The Department of Finance press office confirmed nothing; journalists were told a statement would be issued after Christmas, and so the political correspondents took their breaks.

The next they heard was an unusual e-mail from TV3 advising them to watch TV3 news for a story of “national importance”. That story was, of course, the now infamous one concerning Brian Lenihan.

Obviously, TV3 has claimed the story was in the public interest. It has further claimed it was handled with sensitivity, by giving the Minister 48 hours to tell his family. The question of public interest is an important one, because that is what is called upon any time a question mark hovers over a story. The public interest can be difficult to define. The Press Council of Ireland, which, of course, regulates the print media, defines it thus: “The public interest is invoked in relation to a matter capable of affecting the people at large so that they may legitimately be interested in receiving and the press legitimately interested in providing information about it.” This is as good a definition as any, and it means the story has to have impact and that the people need to know it. It differs from what the public want to know, or public curiosity.

Is the health of a senior Minister in the public interest? In many cases it is, for instance, when it affects how he or she does their job. So back to TV3. Did the news item tell us Lenihan would be unable to do his job? It did not, because it did not confirm his illness, or how ill he is; further tests are to take place, it said. It did imply he was very seriously ill, and this was invoked to give it a public interest veneer.

The interview with the oncologist Prof John Crown was used for this purpose. If he is not seriously ill, or his illness will have little or no impact on him doing his job, there is no public interest defence.

And what was the source of the story? Well, TV3 simply “learned” of it, according to news anchor Colette Fitzpatrick as she introduced the item, while political editor Ursula Halligan “understood” Mr Lenihan had a serious illness. She said the extent of his condition would not be known until he had undergone further tests. Her only quoted source was a Department of Finance statement saying the Minister was “well” and enjoying Christmas with his family, and he would not be speaking to the media until the new year.

At time of broadcast TV3 had no more than a rumour, and no attributable source. Whatever happens in the new year will not change that. TV3’s justification, according to a newspaper report of a comment by TV3 head of news Andrew Hanlon, was that the story was of major public interest “primarily because of the fact that he is so widely perceived as being the one man who can get us out of our current economic woes”, a strange justification indeed, and as for the timing, well, again according to Hanlon, as quoted in a newspaper report: “At the end of the day, the story was around, and it was only a matter of time before it would come out.”

That is the nub of the issue. Competition is pushing journalism to publish rumour, and to stretch what is meant by the public interest to breaking point. Will news executives allow journalists the professional autonomy to make judgments in future, or will they be told to print or broadcast rumours and other dodgy stories by executives with one eye scanning audience figures? Will journalists be allowed the time to ensure accuracy if a story demands another source, or will they be forced to put a story out there before a rival does so?

Journalists must remember they have the power to draw the line and understand that while they have the freedom to publish or broadcast – and that must be defended – they might also have a responsibility, at times, not to. At the same time, journalism must not return to more deferential times either.

Journalism is a tricky profession, with few rules. There are guidelines, from the National Union of Journalists, the Press Council and the new Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, but that is all they are, guidelines, offering a possible path through what can seem an ethical and moral maze. Each case is specific, which again makes it difficult to write rules. The code of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, of course relevant to TV3, states: “Factual programming shall not contain material that could reasonably be expected to cause undue distress or offence unless it is editorially justified and in the public interest.” TV3 would presumably argue that a 48-hour period to allow the family to be informed was ensuring the station did not cause undue distress, and that the public interest was served because of who Lenihan is.

Unlike journalists, politicians like rules, and the Minister for Justice has already warned he will revisit his privacy proposals if the media does not behave. The insensitive invasion of a popular politician’s privacy might be just the example he needs.

Michael Foley is head of journalism at DIT. He has published widely on media ethics