THE nation was shocked last night at the manner in which TV3 News disclosed that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was suffering from a serious illness.
Senior government sources spoke of "outrage" across the political spectrum at the insensitive content and tone of a news bulletin broadcast at 5.30pm yesterday, which the station had earlier in the day flagged as a "news story of national importance".
A senior government source said: "TV3 was a total disgrace, at one stage speaking of the minister in the past tense. That was the most disgraceful broadcast I have ever heard."
The station's political editor Ursula Halligan reported: "It's shocking news for members of the public. Brian Lenihan was... eh, is regarded as one of the more popular members of the Government."
A spokesman for the Department of Finance last night felt obliged to issue a statement on the health of Mr Lenihan as a result of mounting speculation throughout the day that he is seriously ill.
Several of Mr Lenihan's Cabinet colleagues did not want to publicly comment on the manner in which TV3 News handled the report because, they said, the Finance Minister had not yet publicly confirmed the nature of his illness, reported by TV3 to be pancreatic cancer.
Andrew Hanlon, TV3 Director of News, last night defended the broadcast.
"We held it for two days to enable him to inform his family," he said.
Asked about the broadcast last night, former minister, Mary O'Rourke, an aunt of Mr Lenihan, was too upset to comment immediately after the broadcast.
It was left to opposition TDs, Mr Lenihan's constituency colleagues, Labour Finance spokeswoman Joan Burton and Fine Gael Enterprise spokesman Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor, to reflect the growing anger.
Mr Varadkar said he thought it was "absolutely inappropriate" for TV3 to broadcast details of Mr Lenihan's condition, particularly when the Finance Minister had only received the initial diagnosis in the past few days.
Mr Varadkar said: "I had heard about this last week, but I wasn't sure if it was true. I don't think it was right for this to be aired on the news.
"I think Mr Lenihan should have been given the opportunity of at least a couple of weeks to digest the news with his family before deciding whether or not he wanted to make a statement."
Ms Burton also expressed her anger at TV3's decision: "I think it's a terrible intrusion into Brian and his family's privacy and especially at Christmas. The man has young, teenage children.
"It's certainly not a departure in the media that I would welcome. I'm really shocked that a story like that could be broadcast at Christmas. I just want to wish Brian well."
John McCormack, CEO of the Irish Cancer Society, said that the correct course of action was to give the Lenihan family space, especially as the family themselves had made no public announcement.
Last night there was mounting anger that the news was broken on St Stephen's Day while the minister was on holiday with his family. It is understood that not all of Mr Lenihan's family and friends were aware that he was so ill.
The insensitivity of which TV3 is being accused was exacerbated, according to government sources, by the broadcast of comments by consultant oncologist, Professor John Crown, which implied a poor prognosis for Mr Lenihan.
TV3 had earlier contacted all newspapers in Dublin in what government sources regarded as an attempt to gain maximum attention for the bulletin.
Behind the scenes, serious pressure was yesterday brought to bear on TV3 not to disclose the nature of Mr Lenihan's illness before the minister had decided to make a personal statement.
Last night Mr Hanlon sought to defend the station's handling of the report. He said: "TV3 has handled the matter with sensitivity and compassion. We had the story on Christmas Eve and we decided to hold it for two days to enable him to inform members of his family.
"We believe this to be a story of national importance. He is the most important minister in the Government at the moment," he said.
Mr Hanlon also denied that TV3's interview with Prof Crown was inappropriate, claiming Prof Crown was not talking about Mr Lenihan but about pancreatic cancer in general.
The sweeping rumours about the health of the minister led Mr Lenihan's spokesperson to state: "We are not commenting on the rumours except to say the minister is well and enjoying the Christmas break with his family and does not propose talking to the media about anything until the new year."
However, the Sunday Independent understands that, following treatment in hospital earlier this month, Mr Lenihan is now facing a significant "health challenge" in the new year.
It is understood that the 50-year-old minister, who has bravely contended with a difficult 20 months in office, has received a diagnosis within the past three to four days and will undergo further tests, as well as treatment, early in the New Year.
A deeply private man, Mr Lenihan did not wish for details of his illness to be revealed in the lead up to what was, by widespread agreement, the most difficult Budget in living memory -- the Finance Minister's third Budget in just 20 months.
The last six months have, perhaps, been the most stressful in the tenure of any finance minister in the history of the State.
Mr Lenihan has had to contend with the virtual collapse of the banking sector, culminating recently with the passage of legislation giving effect to Nama, the State's bad bank, the design of which was overseen by the minister to help restore financial viability to Ireland's banks.
He was also to the fore in facing down the militant trade union movement in the days and, indeed, hours leading to his Budget earlier this month.
His performance as minister has attracted widespread praise from his admirers, and indeed from his political opponents, who have singled out Mr Lenihan as one of the most impressive performers in Irish politics.
He is now regularly referred to as a potential future leader of Fianna Fail and the Government.
Mr Lenihan has been under unremitting stress in recent months, an image which was starkly highlighted by the economist and journalist, David McWilliams, who, in his recent book, painted a picture of the minister as a man under severe pressure, memorably chewing on cloves of garlic, to help keep him alert -- but also known for its widespread health benefits.
Last night, sources close to the minister were anxious to downplay the significance of his health difficulties, but he was said to be "very positive" and of the belief that he had faced bigger challenges in the past and had overcome them.
However, the past few weeks have been a very worrying time for Mr Lenihan, his wife, Circuit Court Judge Patricia and their two children.
Original indications that Mr Lenihan went into hospital for a routine hernia operation now appear to have been designed to play down the significance of the health issues that the minister is facing.
Mr Lenihan admitted himself to the Mater Private Hospital on December 16 for treatment on what was officially described as a "hernia problem". He was forced to miss the Dail vote on the public sector pay cuts, which was passed 80 votes to 69.
The previous evening, he had attended the Oireachtas Finance Committee Christmas dinner at Fire Restaurant in the Mansion House in Dublin. He was described as being in "good form" and he left relatively early.
It is believed that the minister pulled out of a number of agreed engagements in the run up to Christmas and this led to a rumour in Dublin financial circles about the state of his health.
While Mr Lenihan was diagnosed in the last few days, he spent Christmas with his family, but will return to hospital for treatment early in the new year.
Friends say that Mr Lenihan is "positive" and "not unduly worried".