MATT COOPER: Breaking news ... the problem is it can be tweeted so fast that it hurts

WHAT time was it when you heard about Gerry Ryan’s death? It doesn’t really matter, does it, whether it was 2.30pm or 5pm last Friday, or even the following day?

What matters is that the popular broadcaster died at too young an age and that many people close to him and who loved him have been left to grieve a totally unexpected and debilitating loss.

What was also important about last Friday afternoon, though, was that his family and other loved ones got to hear the dreadful news in inappropriate circumstances.

Unfortunately, some people, mainly journalists, became involved in a race to be first with the news. Some tried to do so via Twitter, the text-based messaging service; others wanted to broadcast the news. It was as if they wanted to get some kind of scoop, as if that would provide some form of validation for the virtues of their chosen media outlet.

Many professional journalists and broadcasters should have behaved better. I learnt the news first through speculation on Twitter not long after 2pm – and I immediately found it distasteful. What if it wasn’t true? And if it was true, had the right people been told, without finding out this way? Very quickly I received phone calls from people who knew it to be true, but that doesn’t mean it was news for public consumption immediately.

Some newspaper journalists who use Twitter have sought to explain their peddling of the speculation on the basis that they knew the story to be true, even without official confirmation. Others expressed the hope that the news wasn’t true, but that didn’t stop them from repeating it. The issue of taste seems to have escaped them. Even if that’s absent, then professional standards should apply: in the case of a death you wait for official confirmation from the deceased’s family or employer or the gardaí who would have received permission from the others.

Maybe people’s critical facilities deserted them given the shock of what had happened. I got it wrong when a few hours later I tweeted that people in RTÉ should have been more careful in what they’d tweeted prior to the official release.

I didn’t name anyone, but people immediately took it to be a reference to Miriam O’Callaghan. I should have realised, as I subsequently discovered, that she had made an honest mistake when she inadvertently confirmed the news by tweeting about her own upset.

She hadn’t realised the news had not been released publicly and did something in shock. She was unfortunate and upset by her error. Others though don’t really have such excuses. They just wanted to be gossips.

They should learn there are many times in the media when being accurate is better than being first and, as importantly, even when accurate that no public interest is served by revealing something that is certain to be revealed in good time anyway.

nIn Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, last weekend I was introduced to a remarkable and inspiring success story: the Burren College of Art.

Located just about a mile from the charming village – which thankfully remained largely unspoiled during the building boom because of the reluctance in the area to facilitate so-called growth through the construction of rarely used holiday homes – the college played host to the annual Burren Law School where lawyers, academics, state officials, journalists and other interested citizens discussed the issues facing the country.

The debate itself was interesting and enlightening, but the surprise was the college itself. A not-for-profit organisation run by Mary Hawkes-Greene, it is affiliated to NUI Galway for degree courses but attracts postgraduate students from home and abroad.

Their work was on display on the walls of the gallery and much of it was excellent. But what really inspired was the fact that Mary and her late husband had the idea of putting something like this where nobody would have expected it and where, when you see it, you realise that it really works.

It was all done through their initiative, not relying on the state for grants or tax breaks or the like.

Now Mary is actively involved in community projects to try to develop Ballyvaughan in a sustainable manner, to deal with the recession for those who live there all-year-round. With the nearby Aillwee Caves and the accompanying and excellent bird sanctuary providing another great reason for tourists to visit, it was good to see one low-key village seemingly thriving.

By the time you read this the shape of the British general election result should be clear. It has been a fascinating race from which our politicians are likely to draw much: Brian Cowen will look closely at how outgoing prime minister Gordon Brown – a finance minister who took over from a popular leader – performed in the campaign and how much he was handicapped by the legacy of responsibility.

Enda Kenny will compare himself to Tory leader David Cameron and wonder if playing safe against an unpopular leader delivers enough.

Eamon Gilmore will likewise compare his position to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg because even if the party policy positions are somewhat different, the role of the third party has been fascinating. Much of this campaign has been shaped by the British having their first TV leaders’ debate – something we’ve had in every general election that I can remember.

But ours have been one-offs, between two leaders and very late in the campaign when many viewers have formed their own opinions. Instead of coming to the debates with an open mind, many have sought reinforcement, thereby limiting their value.

SO what about our next time? Labour, boosted by its opinion poll showings, wants to be accommodated, although the joke now is that it should insist on a two-party debate as that would involve it and Fine Gael, with Fianna Fáil, now third in the polls, denied access.

Seemingly taking the demands to repeat the British experience into account, RTÉ has offered a three-way debate on the Frontline programme – a leaders’ debate with the “minor” parties and then the traditional end of campaign leader’s debate between the Taoiseach and the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny.

Labour is not impressed, but Fine Gael seemingly wants to stick to the old method, even though it has not helped its leaders in recent elections.

However, the RTÉ plan fails to take into account that the British campaign was spread across three competing TV channels – BBC, Sky and ITV. TV3 should be included as part of our next debates, as should radio.

Indeed, Eamon Gilmore has already agreed to my suggestion of taking part in a leaders’ radio debate – where the words are all important and the politicians don’t have to worry about how they look – that I would chair on The Last Word on Today FM. Now I just need to get the other leaders to agree.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm. The revised and updated edition of his book Who really runs Ireland? is in shops now.



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