Michael Foley, the head of journalism at DIT, wrote this analysis of TV3’s recent broadcast about Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s health:
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.
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.
Read more on Irish Times. I had blogged about this incident on Chronicles of Dissent and share a lot of Foley’s concerns. The issue of whether the station should have reported something that was not confirmed is clearly an important point, but even if we start from the premise that the station had confirmed or accurate information, the other very important issues remain.