I’m on the side of four men who are taking a bashing from the media

I TOOK an additional few days off over Christmas and I think it must be affecting me.

I find myself completely out of sympathy with the prevailing media view and in sympathy instead with four men whose politics and ideas I’ve never agreed with.

1. I think TV3 acted absolutely disgracefully in relation to Brian Lenihan.

2. I think the media as a whole has been decidedly unfair to Noel Dempsey.

3. I simply cannot understand how the media has decided to write off Peter Robinson without a scintilla of fairness in their scrutiny.

4. I don’t think Gerry Adams has any more questions to answer about the terrible things that happened in his family.

So there. Here I am, on the side of people with whom I normally have no sympathy. I hope it’s not a sign of ageing or the onset of something contagious. But having followed all these stories over the past few weeks, I just can’t help myself.

Let’s deal with Noel Dempsey first. So he took a holiday. Big deal. He is and always has been one of the hardest working ministers around (that doesn’t mean I agree with him, but anyone can see at a glance how committed he is to his work).

Everyone is entitled to take a break now and again. The notion that he carries some personal responsibility for the state of the roads, in the worst weather in all our lifetimes, is just absurd.

That’s not to say, mind you, that the Government shouldn’t feel ashamed of its management of the situation. We’re going to find ourselves taking delivery of thousands of tonnes of salt about a week after the last of the slush disappears and that’s down to their appallingly ineffective planning. As usual in a crisis, the Government sets up a faceless committee and hides behind it.

I guess it’s that issue of facelessness and lack of leadership that led the media to focus on Noel Dempsey.

It’s a bigger issue than one man and it’s increasingly an issue that is driving distance between those who are supposed to lead the country and the rest of us. Facelessness is a recipe for unaccountability and a lack of accountability corrodes leadership and trust.

Later in the week I watched a Vincent Browne programme about TV3’s coverage of Brian Lenihan’s illness. The debate concerned itself exclusively with journalistic ethics and obligations.

Noel Whelan, who had been critical of TV3, was roundly attacked for his Fianna Fáil connections. The programme was half an hour old before anyone (it was Whelan) mentioned the issue of basic human decency. And that was the point that was missed in the entire argument.

Brian Lenihan had received very bad news about his health. No matter how open and transparent a man wants to be, no matter how much he recognises the public interest in the health of the finance minister, it was news that anyone would need time to come to terms with – for themselves as well as for their family.

The idea that you have to respond to media deadlines in those circumstances – and let’s face it, the only thing on TV3’s mind was the thought that they’d be beaten to a scoop by the Sunday papers – is cruel and unjust.

TV3’s insistence on broadcasting when they did was a new low in journalism.

On the Vincent Browne programme, Ger Colleran of the Star declared that the journalists in possession of the story had an obligation to report it. No doubt that’s true – but editors have a different role, and are supposed to exercise different judgments.

And what are we to make of the hunting of Peter Robinson? As far as we can ascertain, he discovered that his wife had an affair with a young man, and had used her position of influence to raise money for him.

He discovered all this in the context of an attempt by his wife to take her own life. And of course he would have known already how fragile his wife’s mental health was.

Again as far as we can ascertain, he took steps to ensure the money was paid back. He stands accused now of going to work the following day and of not taking his wife to hospital. We have no idea what state of mind he was in following all these revelations, but we’re prepared to assume he acted callously towards his vulnerable partner.

And he stands accused of not reporting his wife to the relevant authorities. Well, I know this for certain. If I was in Peter Robinson’s position, I don’t know how I would have behaved.

But the one thing that would not have occurred to me is that I should report my wife to the authorities because that would be handing her to the wolves at a time when she clearly couldn’t cope with it. I’m quite certain Peter Robinson would have wished to deal with the entire matter privately – including the paying back of the money – because of the consequences primarily for his wife.

I will admit that when I heard his preliminary statement, I thought it had an unnecessarily self-serving air of martyrdom about it. He was without doubt feeling sorry for himself. In similar circumstances, I suspect I would have been feeling sorry for myself too. And of course he was only making the statement because he knew there was a whistleblower and that therefore the story could not be kept private.

But I can’t conclude that he has done something wrong and that he should lose his job as a result. He may feel he needs time to recover personally and to deal with his marital situation.

AND God knows his poor wife must be suffering the agonies of the damned. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume she has been suffering from mental health problems for some considerable time and I’m puzzled as a result as to the harshness of a lot of the commentary about her.

Gerry Adams likewise was forced to go public about the issue of abuse within his own family – the alleged abuse by his brother and a history of abuse by his father. He went public because the story was about to break anyway and he dealt with the issues honestly and openly.

He seems, as far as I can judge, to have handled the situation as well as any family member could – no cover-up, no attempt to protect his brother, his focus on the damage done to his niece and the support she needed.

And ever since I’ve read a plethora of stories about the questions he still has to answer. I don’t buy it – it seems to me to be a classic case of the media wanting to have their cake and keep on eating it.

Politics is a tough business. You’ve got to learn to take the slings and arrows and you have to accept that citizens have an absolute right to hold their leaders to account. But there are times when we forget that everyone is human and that every human life has moments when it needs support, not condemnation.

Even the toughest media people need to bear that in mind sometimes.

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