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Kevin Myers: The abyss beckons after ignorant, hysterical lynching of TV3 news

Let me start my first column of the year 2010 by congratulating the TV3 news team, and specifically Ursula Halligan and head of news Andrew Hanlon, for their courage and their sensitivity in breaking the dreadful news of the illness of Brian Lenihan.

The minister is deservedly popular and respected. I esteem him above all his peers. It is the worst of all duties for a journalist to have to break the news of a serious illness afflicting one of the best, and best-liked, men in Ireland. But duty is duty, as defined by the OED: "An action required by one's business, occupation or function."

Brian Lenihan is the single most important politician this state has known since Eamon de Valera, 1939-45. The duties -- that word again -- falling upon him are unbearably onerous. It is obvious that he must be in the peak of his health while discharging those duties -- yes, once more, inescapably the d-word. If we in the news media discover that he has an illness that could be adversely affecting the manner in which he attends to his duties, then it is our duty, D-U-T-Y, to report what we know.

That's it. We only repress the truth when the life of a kidnap hostage is at stake, or in matters of national security. But the health of the finance minister in the middle of the greatest economic crisis in the history of the State is, by definition, a matter of profound public interest, and equally, our correspondent obligation to report this is total and over-riding.

TV3 reported the news at 5.30pm on St Stephen's Day. Later that evening, RTE News reported the TV3 revelation as an outrage, as if breaking uncomfortable news were something foreign to its culture: which is probably not far from the truth. RTE's David Davin-Power, having reported on the "anger" that had apparently erupted in an empty Leinster House, then winsomely added that he could confirm that the minister had cancer.

Truth was no barrier to the subsequent waves of hysteria. Darragh O'Brien TD said that the TV3 story had invaded the privacy of the Lenihan family. (The Lenihan family were left totally alone). Liz McManus TD of Labour declared it was "inappropriate for any television station to take advantage of a health issue".

Mary Hanafin said that Brian Lenihan has the right to be sick in private.

Listen, you silly, silly girls: he is a politician; we are in the media. We report on you. No minister is sick in "private", and no-one is taking advantage of anyone.

In 'The Irish Times', Noel Whelan sanctimoniously declared: "I am acutely conscious that in addressing the topic today, I risk putting further focus on what should still be a private matter."

No it shouldn't. The man who minds the future of the country has a life-threatening cancer.

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Noel Whelan then, quite disgracefully, misrepresented the TV3 decision to defer broadcasting the news for 48 hours, which was done at the Government's request, as imposing "a deadline" on the Lenihan family. Almost more disgraceful still -- though it is hard to know what is the most disgusting element in this farrago of posturing humbug and tendentious prating -- was his attack on Professor John Crown, who had merely described on TV3 the prognostic implications of pancreatic cancer.

The poor professor is now being lynched, which of course is how we discuss things in Ireland.

The former 'Irish Times' journalist, and now lecturer in journalism, Michael Foley, alleged in 'The Irish Times' that the TV3 story was based only on a rumour. His students at DIT will properly assume that he made the necessary enquiries before he levelled such a grave and startling accusation, one that no responsible journalist would make without proof.

However, it is a little rich for such a commentator in a newspaper that has spent the past couple of years fighting a legal action for the right to protect the identity of its sources, to be pillorying TV3 for having "no attributable source" for its Lenihan story.

The reputation of 'The Irish Times' was partly rescued by its brilliant columnist, Sarah Carey, who asked the real questions that should have been dominating the media in the past week.

Was Brian Lenihan's illness a factor in the quite scandalous decision of the Department of Finance to rescind the pay cuts for senior civil servants, and which had been announced in the Budget a fortnight earlier?

And was that December 23 announcement deliberately timed to coincide with, and be concealed by, the Christmas holidays?

These were the real issues of the season: they were, of course, ignored by RTE News, as its attack-dogs closed in on TV3.

Generally speaking, a society has the media it deserves: so no wonder the abyss beckons.

For our media, led once again by the licence-funded RTE newsroom, prefer to lynch the messenger, and ignore the message.

And if this State vanishes from the comity of adult nations, as well it might, the media's hate-filled, ignorant, hysterical lynching of TV3 will be merely seen as just another symptom of a thoroughly well-deserved moribundity.