Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

An update on the UK Parliament pollution study embargo break

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Last week, I wrote about the case of a UK Parliament media officer (MO) who had given The Independent on Sunday permission to break an embargo on a report on pollution that wasn’t scheduled to lift until the following day.

In an email exchange addressed to more than 20 environmental correspondents at various UK news outlets, the media officer, Nick Davies, apologized for the incident and acknowledged he had made a mistake in suggesting that the paper do a “‘curtain-raiser’ on the report by drawing out a couple of things that had been submitted in evidence to the inquiry.”

This week, I was forwarded an email sent by Parliament Press Gallery chair George Parker, of the Financial Times, detailing the follow-up:

Dear Colleagues

The question of select committee embargos has been raised by a number of journalists following an incident at the weekend in which the findings of the environmental audit select committee on air pollution were reported in some detail before the embargo.

Can I just stress that it is essential that journalists observe these embargos: breaches are also taken extremely seriously by the House authorities.

I’ve spoken to Liz Parratt (Media and Comms Adviser, House of Commons Service) about the incident and the apparent confusion that arose in the preparation of the piece by the Independent on Sunday. Liz has taken steps to ensure that no such problem arises in the future (see below).

Many thanks.

Liz Parratt’s letter:

Further to our conversation, this is just to confirm that:

There was a clear misunderstanding between one of our Media Officers and the Independent on Sunday regarding the coverage of today’s report.

I’ve spoken to both the journalist and the MO. Although their discussions with each other did not lead to a common understanding of the action to be taken, I’m satisfied that both parties acted in good faith.

It certainly wasn’t the MO’s intention to break the embargo. But he acted quickly once it happened, and emailed all the environmental correspondents on Sunday morning to apologise for his role in creating any confusion.

For absolute clarity and avoidance of doubt: I’ll make it clear to all MOs that they should not suggest pieces based on public evidence just before publication of a committee report.

Finally: I’d like to reassure you that we remain committed to the embargo system, which we believe works well both for the media and for select committees.

I don’t have much to add, except to say this would have been a good opportunity to look at whether the embargo itself was serving the best needs of the public — never mind the media and select committees — and whether it almost encouraged this “approved break.”

Written by Ivan Oransky

April 1, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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