Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

UK Parliament press officer apologizes for telling Independent on Sunday to break his embargo

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photo by ** Maurice ** via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/mauricedb/

Several days ago, The UK’s Independent on Sunday newspaper carried a story (link is to another version; Sunday story doesn’t seem to be available online) reporting that the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, led by MP Tim Yeo, had found that air pollution was causing 50,000 people in the UK to die early every year. The government, according to a report by the committee, wasn’t doing enough to solve the problem.

The report was incendiary enough, but what got Ben Webster, environmental correspondent for The Times of London, particularly irritated was that the report was embargoed until Monday morning. The Independent on Sunday — often referred to as the Sindy — seemed to have broken an embargo to which every other UK news outlet had agreed.

Ben called Nick Davies, the Parliament press officer who had handled the report, only to find out that the Sindy had broken the embargo with Nick’s permission. In an email Sunday morning to more than 20 environmental correspondents at various UK news outlets, Ben wrote:

I spoke to Nick this morning and he admitted he had decided to “trail” the report in the Sindy and had sent it to them. He did not give me a straight answer when I asked him whether Tim Yeo had approved of the breaking of his report’s embargo.

This is a betrayal of the embargo system, which relies on trust between journalists and PRs.

The EAC could have decided to embargo the report for Sunday papers, which would have been fine and would have saved us a lot of trouble writing the story and commissioning graphics on Friday.

Clearly, as things stand, we cannot trust any embargo on any future report or press release issued by Nick Davies. As he ignores his own embargoes, we would be entitled also to ignore them.

However, I have told Nick that we could re-establish the trust between us if he replies to this email by promising to observe his own embargoes in future.

A source forwarded me the entire email chain, the contents of which I verified before writing this post. Fiona Harvey, the Financial Times‘ environmental correspondent, responded to Ben and the group:

I completely agree – I’m always aghast at embargo-breaking by journalists, which I regard as beyond the pale, and for press offices to break their own just destroys the system.

One thing I do know is that the EAC press office is under a lot of pressure to get publicity for its reports, even though some of them are frankly never going to get much interest, and others of them in the past have been overlooked through being released during very full news periods.

Perhaps, in fact, too much pressure has been brought to bear on them and that is why they’ve done this.

But we should make it abundantly clear that it’s not acceptable.

Nick, copied on Fiona’s email, responded Sunday night with an apology to everyone on the chain:

I will take those comments on board. I just wanted to do a good job and get this important story as much coverage as possible. However, I’ve clearly made a mistake on this.

My intention was to allow the Independent on Sunday to do ‘curtain-raiser’ on the report by drawing out a couple of things that had been submitted in evidence to the inquiry. Not for them to splash every stat in the report! So, I guess I got burnt.

I won’t be letting this happen again. So, please accept my apologies.

The responses from other correspondents suggest they appreciated Nick’s candor. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his newspaper’s schedule, The Sunday TimesJonathan Leake suggested that “the easiest thing to do is just embargo reports for a Sunday instead. Then you’ll get two days coverage instead of just one!”

The BBC’s Richard Black chimed in:

I completely agree with Ben and Fiona – breaking embargoes isn’t smart, it isn’t clever, no-one’s impressed. The easiest and cheapest trick in the book.

This is far from the first time I’ve seen parliamentary or governmental press officers try to manipulate story releases like this. It never works; for every journalist who comes out of it thrilled, there’s a dozen who end up pissed off.

Thanks for ‘fessing up though, Nick.

It’s unclear why Nick would have given the Sindy such preferential treatment; perhaps he thought their report would be most sympathetic to the Committee’s goals. I asked him for further comment, but he hasn’t responded yet.

As Richard suggests,  press officers have certainly tried to manipulate story releases before. The fact is, sources sometimes give tips to a small number of preferred reporters — a practice that puts other reporters at a disadvantage, but isn’t inherently unfair. When everyone has agreed to an embargo, however, and then one news organization gets to break it, that begs obvious questions, particularly if the embargoed report is a government — eg taxpayer-funded — one with important public health implications.

Despite what happened, the confession is indeed welcome, and I’d like to think airing this sort of episode is just the kind of thing that will fuel a rich discussion on Embargo Watch.

UPDATE 3/24/10 11:10 a.m. Eastern: I asked my former colleague David Biello, associate editor for environment and energy, to put the report’s findings in perspective. Here’s what he wrote by email:

This Parliamentary inquiry condemns the actions of some UK government agencies charged with protecting air quality and human health, such as Defra. The inquiry notes that Defra, perhaps cynically, expects to avoid fines for not complying with general European Union air quality standards when it comes to so-called “particulate matter,” better known as soot and aerosols and charges that its Air Quality Strategy does not fully count the costs and benefits of reducing such soot as well as smog-forming nitrogen oxides. The committee is particularly damning of the government generally for failing to pay attention to a pollution issue that “probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic, or obesity.” You can disagree or not with that statement but the conclusion of the report is fairly direct: “Poor air quality means poor health and environmental degradation, and it has long-term consequences not just for the UK but for the planet. The Government needs to address this major problem much more urgently.”


Written by Ivan Oransky

March 24, 2010 at 9:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with giving a media outlet preferential treatment, but I think Davies has crossed the line. I’ve had a press officer tell me newspaper X has exclusive embargoed access to a report, but there are some juicy tidbits I should look at when the report is released to the public. That was annoying but fair, I think. I was given a heads up, and I could take it or leave it.

    In this case, Davies has manipulated the press with his “curtain-raising” strategy, guaranteeing second day coverage, and pissing off the British press. Nice.

    Brendan Borrell

    March 24, 2010 at 9:56 am

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