WE in the media are pretty good at holding everybody up to scrutiny except, it could be argued, ourselves. In conversation, politicians frequently point out, with no little justification, that journalists are much more reluctant to criticise the actions of media colleagues than public figures.
In that context, the decision of TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne to debate that station's controversial report on finance minister Brian Lenihan's health on St Stephen's Day was welcome.
TV3 has taken a lot of stick for its decision to run the news story during the Christmas break – for what's it worth, I believe Lenihan and his family should have been given the time and space to come to terms with his diagnosis before he had to make the inevitable public statement on the matter – but the station deserves credit for being willing to debate the decision on its flagship current affairs programme.
It made for a fascinating show. Political commentator Noel Whelan, who was strongly critical of the St Stephen's Day TV3 bulletin, raised the most interesting point when he suggested that, sometimes in the media, the goal of breaking stories is so dominant that basic human decency is disregarded.
It's a point we in the media should take on board, especially when it comes to the thorny issue of "public interest", which is often cited when contentious stories that raise serious privacy issues are published.
There is a view in the media that breaking stories is not only a journalist's job, it is his or her very raison d'etre, and that it's in the public interest that journalists do so. But, leaving aside the fact that it is also the job of a journalist to entertain and inform, inevitably the matter is somewhat more complex than that.
Firstly, people are generally far less interested in who broke what story than journalists imagine. News stories are extremely important, of course, but it's worth noting that, in all the years that I've written for this newspaper, by far the-biggest selling edition was the Sunday after Princess Diana's funeral, when there was no news story on the front page. Journalists tend to be a lot more impressed by scoops than the general public, who are often not remotely interested in the subject matter or couldn't care less which newspaper had it first.
But that is almost by-the-by. Much more important is the whole issue of what represents the 'public interest'? In some cases, the public interest is very obvious, my colleague Ken Foxe's investigation of the expenses of the then Ceann Comhairle, John O'Donoghue, being a case in point. The Irish Times breaking the story in the autumn of 2006 about Bertie Ahern's finances is another example of a media organisation revealing something that people had a right to know. Yes, the matter was being investigated by a tribunal of inquiry, but there was no guarantee at that point that the matter would come into the public domain. But there are other cases that are less clear-cut, especially when the media organisation is revealing something that would have become public knowledge eventually anyway.
For example, is it in the public interest for the media to reveal the leaked preliminary findings of a tribunal of inquiry, as has happened several times in the past? The tribunal has been set up in the public interest to get to the truth of the matter, which will be published at the conclusion of its investigation. Its preliminary findings do not represent its final deliberations, which may end up considerably different, particularly in respect of its findings about individuals. Does the public (assuming they care) have 'the right to know' something that may turn out to be less than the complete picture?
In such cases it could be argued that it is directly contrary to the public interest for a media organisation to disclose such findings, as it risks giving an inaccurate portrayal of the investigation and possibly undermining the tribunal. In the case of an investigation into a very sensitive matter, the needs of those who were adversely affected by the wrong-doing being examined must also be taken into account.
There are no absolutes in these cases. Each needs to be examined on its own merits to ensure that the public interest is genuinely the primary consideration. (I write this being acutely conscious that I could not swear if, for example, I received the preliminary findings of some tribunal or other, I wouldn't look to have them published.)
Just to be clear, there are, of course, times when media organisations, in the public interest, have to publish stories that, though true and important, are unpleasant for and hurtful to some parties. That is the nature of journalism, which, when carried out correctly, is crucial to the proper functioning of democracy.
But it is surely too simplistic to take the approach that 'it's our job to publish the truth regardless' with every news story. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that institutions that adopt such a rigid, inward-looking and dogmatic stance tend to confuse the public interest with self-interest. It would be the height of arrogance for people in the media to believe we would be any different.