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“just good journalism”?

My e-mail informing journalists that Celia Hall, the Daily Telegraph’s health editor has been removed from the Science Media Centre’s contacts list for two months after an embargo break prompted a huge number of responses spanning every conceivable reaction. The majority congratulated us for taking a stand – these came mostly from other print and broadcast reporters who had either been yelled at by their newsdesks or had pre-planned filming and features spiked. Others, admittedly a minority, pointed out that removing one journalist rather than the paper itself was a rather lame sanction (this latter group usually ended their comments with ‘but don’t tell the Telegraph I said that!’ which of course I will not).

But the responses I wanted to address here are those that argued that the Telegraph’s front page splash was not ‘an embargo break’ but good journalism. Had these only come from our friends at the Telegraph I would have let the matter go but this argument came from several key journalists with whom we work and one member of our Advisory Board so I think it’s worth using my inaugural blog to explain why the Science Media Centre (SMC) stand by our decision.

For those not familiar with the story, let me give you a brief background. Over the past few years the SMC’s reputation for running press briefings has meant that we have been approached by a variety of respected scientific bodies to jointly launch their stories. Occasionally these stories are hotly awaited by journalists and the embargo assumes centre stage in the media strategy – stories like the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM crops, the launch of Bio-Bank and, last week, the findings from the Nuffield Council for Bioethics’ working group on the treatment of premature babies.

Given that the expert group was looking at such emotive issues as whether the UK should adopt a Dutch style threshold on the age at which medics should attempt to resuscitate very premature babies – we knew there was a high risk of embargo breaks and worked with the Nuffield press officer to ensure that everything was set up to avoid it. Having ‘survived’ the Sundays we then sent a reminder on Monday for the Tuesday briefing emphasising the Wednesday embargo and (at the request of one Celia Hall from the Telegraph!), organised a ‘lock-in’ to allow journalists time to read the full report before the briefing. The Nuffield press officer then started lining up working party member to do key broadcast interviews on the Wednesday morning.

Thinking we were home and dry I went out for a few congenial drinks on Monday night only to arrive home to see my mate Paxman holding up the Telegraph with the story splashed across the front – including the ‘top line’ that Nuffield was recommending that babies of 22 weeks and under should not automatically be given intensive care. When the Today programme and other broadcasters called to say they planned to lead on the Telegraph story there was no option but to lift the embargo. Suddenly the Nuffield Council’s control over the communication of this controversial and important story was seized from their hands with all the obvious consequences. The much sought after prime-time slots on the Today programme went to interviews with people who were not even on the working group; print journalist reported furious news desks offering less space and spiking long planned case studies and feature ideas; and the leading viability expert on the panel arrived late to the briefing because he had been rushing around TV news studios. There is no doubt that the quality and quantity of the media coverage for this report was adversely affected by the Telegraph splash – as of course was inevitable. Nuffield staff and working group members were angry, journalists were angry and what should have been yet another successful, enjoyable SMC briefing was dominated by recriminations over the embargo break.

But I am not writing this to tell my sad story – after all the best laid media plans regularly go awry for a variety of reasons and on this occasion we salvaged more than we often do because of the strength of the story itself. But there is one aspect of the reaction that I want to engage with and that’s the notion that because this wasn’t a traditional embargo break we should have let it pass.

For those of you who don’t live in the land of journalism – bear with me here. Celia Hall explained that she did not get the story from any embargoed material she received but instead received a phone call from a contact outside Nuffield and therefore not subject to embargo. In the eyes of Celia’s colleagues and a handful of other journalists, Celia was just doing what any good journalist would do and that’s running a story early based on a leak. The argument from this group can be summarised as “everyone one of us would do the same and anyone who says otherwise is lying”.

So let me be clear here – I absolutely accept the distinction between two ways of getting the story and that is reflected in the sanction we imposed (if she had taken it from an embargoed press release it would have been more like 6 months!!). But ironically it was the ‘anyone of us would do the same’ cry that persuaded the SMC of the need to take some form of action. If the embargo on a major story like this is so fragile that any journalist can ignore it on the strength of one phone call the day before, then all the more reason for us to protect our embargoed briefings by letting it be known that doing so will have consequences.

And how are press officers meant to protect embargoed stories from anonymous tip offs? One journalist politely suggested I would be better spending my time finding the culprit responsible for the leak rather than sanctioning the journalist – but how do we do that? Since Celia wouldn’t reveal the source, and presumably no journalist would, then we are powerless to act. Conversely, a lack of reaction from us merely serves to send the message out that the SMC is happy for journalists to run embargoed stories early as long as it came from a tip off rather than the embargoed press release. Is that really what journalists want? After all the embargo system is as useful to journalists as it is for press officers. Making it this elastic will have consequences for us all.

And I have to add that I do struggle with the notion that Celia’s splash is a model of great journalism. Had she got the tip off 3 weeks earlier, than in a very real sense it would have been a coup. But getting her call less than 24 hours before the briefing, by which time embargoed press releases were circulating widely – sorry, but Woodward and Bernstein it wasn’t.

The Science Media Centre’s remit is to ensure that controversial science stories get the best possible coverage in the media. Journalists who undermine that by running a story known to be under embargo early – will face the only sanction open to us – removal from our lists.

Celia Hall got a tip off and made a judgement. That’s fine – she got her front page splash and she also got a 2 month ban – it’s a fair cop!


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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