Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are high profile politicians entitled to keep their private toubles out of the media

The news in Ireland has recently been dominated by two totally unrelated cases where the private troubles of high profile politicians have become the subject of media attention. It is interesting to compare the different public reaction to the two news stories and ponder what it says about whether or not we believe public figures are morally entitled to keep their private lives private.

The first case is that of Brian Lenihan the finance minister of the Republic of Ireland who is suffering from a very serious form of cancer. This new was dramatically announced by TV3 in their 9pm news program on the day after Christmas day. Mr Lenhihan is widely regarded as a very clever and able man. Many people disagree with the strategy that he is following to try and help the Irish economy recover from the recent down-turn. However, anyone I have spoken to seems to be of the opinion that he is fundamentally a good person who is trying his best to solve the financial crisis. In addition he receives sympathy due to the fact that he can not really be blamed for causing the current probelms (he was Minister for Justice at the time when the economy was allowed to "over-heat").

The second case concerns the marital difficulties of Peter Robinson the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Most people (including myself) were shocked to hear that Mrs Robinson was having an affair with a teenage boy. This news was especially surprising because Iris Robinson (who was also an active politician in her own right) is most widely know for her fundamentalist views on homosexuality. It is hard to reconcile these views with the news that Iris Robinson was engaged in an affair with someone 39 years her junior at the time she was making these provocative statements. Most people I know would not be supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - although they clearly have a large number of people in Ireland support the party or they would not be in power. In addition most people (including DUP most supporters) don't agree with her opinions on homosexuality.

Much of the public comment about Brian Lenihan's illness has concerned the fact that TV3 were very insensitive way in way they leaked the news. Apparently they contacted him on Christmas Eve and told him they were going to release the news and gave him a deadline of 48 hours to tell his family of his illness before hearing about it on the television news. Naturally people feel sympathy for Mr Lenihan having to break such traumatic news to his family over the Christmas (he has two teenage children). However, if you are objective it is hard to believe that any other news organisation would have kept the news secret for very long. Everyone agreed that the effect of the economic policies now being put in place will not be know for sure for several years - surely it is a important fact that people should know about if there is a significant that Brian Lenihan won't be able to continue as the Minister for Finance for the next 5 years regardless of what way the electorate votes in the next election. I sense that the news outlets who are criticising TV3's handling of the news are actually just upset that they weren't the first to get access to this juicy news story.

The reaction to the Robinson's marital problems has been quite different, most commentators have been only too happy to feed the public's demand for all the titillating details. I know that the Robinson's had more time than the Lenihan family to digest the news before it became public. In addition there are some suggestions that Mrs Robinson's political contacts helped the young man in question get financial support from the public purse for his business. However, on objective analysis it could be argued that the public has less right to know about this story. The distraction caused to Peter Robinson by having to come to terms with his wife's infidelity is hardly greater than the distraction caused to Brian Lenihan by his pancreatic cancer.

I suspect the main reason for the different reaction to the two stories is the relative popularity of the individuals involved. There is probably also some guilty delight in seeing an apparently arrogant person humiliated. Many people (including Peter Robinson) feel that Iris Robinson is to be blamed for her own downfall, while nobody can blame Brian Lenihan for his recent illness. In any case I personally feel sorry for both families - it can't be easy to deal with being in the public eye in such a negative way.

Update 11/Jan: The Robinson story is even more bizarre than I thought. When I initially read reports that Iris Robinson came to meet Kirk McCambley because she already knew his father, I naively though they were saying that Ms Robinson and Mr McCambley senior were social acquaintances. However, I now realise that they were hinting that they knew each other in the biblical sense. Of course Ms Robinson has only publicly admitted having a sexual relationship with Mr McCambley junior. She also stressed that while she first met him when he was aged 9, the relationship only became sexual when he was 19 and safely over the legal age of consent.

All of this provides great fodder for salacious headlines in the media, but I still fail to see how it impacts significantly on Peter Robinson's suitability for the role of First Minister. The media are making a big deal about the financing of the cafe business started by Kirk McCambley's, but the sums of money involved are relatively small and certainly trivial compared to the sums of money involved in the many recent scandals relating to the construction and banking businesses.

The silver lining to this cloud is the fact that the Lenihan family are finally getting some space to deal with their bad news as the media outlets need to save all available space for the more titillating news coming from the Robinson family.

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