The Rumour Mill


"Yeah, but let's hear the bastard deny it." Thus, reputedly, the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, when an aide protested his boss's proposal to smear a political opponent with a false allegation concerning his personal life. The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, must have recognised the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't position into which he was venturing in agreeing to speak to two reporter-authors about his personal life. Time will tell whether he took the right decision in declaring that no, he has not been beating his wife.

It may be that in speaking out unequivocally, the Taoiseach will have put paid to the rumours. Such must have been his strategy. But it is at least as likely that in speaking as he did, he has sparked off suspicions and speculation among a general population which up to the weekend knew nothing of such rumours. A public figure, placed in this situation by media inquiries, faces a dilemma. If he declines to answer questions he may be accused of dissembling or evasiveness. If he denies the allegations he provides an even more tantalising headline - as in yesterday's Ireland On Sunday and Sunday Independent.

It is especially easy in a very small country like this to activate the rumour mill in order to damage a rival, whether in politics or any other area of public life. Politicians, journalists, civil servants, business people often use the same restaurants or bars, live in the same neighbourhoods or find themselves connected by blood or social acquaintance. Former President Patrick Hillery and former Tanaiste Dick Spring were both targeted by political enemies and victimised through outrageous smears, spread by word of mouth and gaining detail and certainty in each re-telling.

It is not always easy to prescribe the proper role for the media when this phenomenon occurs. It will be argued that when rumours reach a certain level of intensity they become legitimate material for inquiry by journalists. It may be argued that journalists have a duty to engage with such rumours and to ensure that the truth is told. The paradox is that if they publish even reports which invalidate the rumours they are actually giving them the very exposure which their originators have sought in the first place. There will always be a proportion of the population which will subscribe to the no-smoke-without-fire theory.

But it is difficult to argue that the circumstances of this case justify the exposure it has now received. The rumours concerning Mr Ahern have been circulated among a relatively small circle in Dublin. Journalists have a fairly shrewd idea that their authorship goes back to certain of the Taoiseach's internal enemies and those who have taken the time and trouble to investigate the reports have found no corroborative detail. If Mr Ahern's wife or partner were receiving treatment for assault or if there were court orders against him it is within the capacity of any good crime reporter to find out about it. Equally if these reports are untrue, it should be within a newspaper's capacity to establish this.

And if an author, having concluded his own investigations, believes the allegations to be false, is he justified in reprinting them (whether in book form or in a newspaper) thus ensuring that they reach the whole population? If he is satisfied that they are untrue, is he justified in putting them to his subject at all since whatever the answer may be, the question itself puts the subject in the frame of accusation? It seems that in this instance the Taoiseach, exasperated by the recurrence of these rumours, decided to "brief" the journalists and as such may be said to have legitimised the publication. But this is not wholly persuasive. Nor is it convincing to suggest that he is rendered any service by printing his denial. Journalism's best discharge of its responsibilities, if it chooses to engage with this sort of issue, would be to identify those who initiated and sponsored the smear campaign against Mr Ahern and to elucidate the reasons why.