Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oiling the wheels of change

Environmental activists such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network having been pushing hard at the issue of palm oil.

Along with WWF and the new Forest Footprint Disclosure project, all are trying to raise awareness of the environmental consequences of palm oil, such as loss of rainforests and high carbon dioxide emissions.

The strategy has been to raise the level of corporate risk involved in the use of this commodity. The nasty KitKat video (man eats KitKat which turns out to be orangutans finger) was a recent example.

All these campaigns have been very effective, something I report on this, this week. I had assistance with the research on this project from the fabulous and diligent Tiffany Stecker, who is one of the first students on City's new Science Journalism course.

The article is currently the most read item on The Economist's website, if you exclude Kal's cartoon. Help keep it up there by reading the story.

Image with thanks from Marco Schmidt, via Wikimedia.

Why the Science Media Centre's Fiona Fox is wrong (this time)...

So Roy Greenslade at The Guardian reblogged my earlier post about Jonathan Leake at The Sunday Times.

As a result, Fiona Fox, the smart and sassy head of the Science Media Centre sent an email to seven science journalists. She wrote to: Mark Henderson (The Times), Victoria Fletcher (The Express), Fiona Macrae (The Daily Mail), Sarah Bosely (The Guardian), Rebecca Smith (The Telegraph), Ian Sample (The Guardian) and Steve Connor (The Independent).

According to one of those who read her email, she expressed her frustration at the points that Greenslade and I raised and posed a question. She said that Jonathan Leake knew the material was embargoed and should have respected this, but then asked her correspondents, "am I wrong?"

I believe she is. Because you cannot embargo public information. As soon as the ESHRE published the abstracts, the game was over.

In a 1,400 word article on her blog today, Fiona argues thoughtfully around every corner of the issue about why Jonathan Leake was wrong to write about a story he must have known was embargoed. Buried in the penultimate paragraph are the 14 most important words:

"Perhaps there are lessons learned about how information and abstracts from a conference are distributed"


Irrespective of Jonathan's alleged track record, irrespective of how much he gets up everyone's noses, irrespective of whether one personally likes or dislikes Jonathan..... you cannot embargo public information.

I'm not trying to portray Jonathan as the ideal of jobbing journalism by not playing by the rule book of how scientific information is distributed. I'm not even saying that this is a debate about the future of embargoes. What I'm trying to say, quite clearly, is that public information officers don't get to blame journalists for their own mistakes. Nor do they then have the right to email the media the equivalent of a press release, blaming their mistake on someone else. I don't for a moment imagine that The Sunday Times would take this to court, but lets be serious here, ESHRE's email to the press is actionable.

Jonathan is basically an easy target for the ESHRE to draw attention from the fact that they published their own embargoed material in advance of the embargo. Please lets not get diverted down a rabbit hole about why embargoes are important or navel gazing about how the embargo system is good for public health.

For the love of all that is rational: If any embargo was broken it was ESHRE that broke the embargo not Leake.

The fastest way to bringing the embargo system into disrepute is to embargo public information and expect journalists, like sheep, to stick to this.

A note to readers. This blog has been updated at Fiona's request. She says the email she sent out earlier (and subsequently forwarded to myself and a number of other journalists) was private.

A note to commenters. You are welcome to offer comments for publication on this blog, positive or negative. However, I reserve the right to summarily reject spiteful, irrelevant or anonymous comments. In particular comments that comprise all three. Sock puppetry is not endorsed on this blog. And, guess what, I know who you are anyway.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In praise of Jonathan Leake

One of the dirty little secrets of journalism is that many writers agree to be bound by something called an embargo. A press notice is put out that specifies the time and date at which the information in the notice can be published.

Journalists agree to this system when they benefit. One of the reasons they benefit is that they don’t miss out on stories, they know what is coming up. What is more, if the subject matter is complicated, such as science, it benefits the journalist if they have a day or two to verify the information in the release.

The people who issue press releases find this system generally guarantees better coverage of a news story both in terms of quality and quantity. If one newspaper runs a story ahead of the others, the rest will be reluctant to follow it up and thus acknowledge the scoop. An embargo means everyone crosses the finish line at the same time.

The trouble is that this finishing line tends to suit the daily journalists more than the weeklies or the monthlies. So some journalists choose to work outside of the system. Rather than relying on hand-outs from press offices, they hunt down their own stories. They are far closer to a model of journalism that we all might admire.

It was pretty surprising, then, to receive this email from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), regarding a broken embargo from their meeting in Rome this week. It read:

Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times (again!) has broken the embargo and run the story today. The Sunday Times is already barred from all our media database and from the ESHRE website, so there is little further action that we can take against Jonathan Leake and his paper. We will, however, be informing Eurekalert and Alphagalileo of his actions.”

The story the Sunday Times published was about how a simple test will allow the prediction of the age of menopause. It was a good story. And ESHRE’s email sounds damning. But the problem is that Mr Leake did not actually break the embargo because, as the same email explained, he is “already barred” from ESHRE’s media database so didn’t receive a press release in the first place.

As Mr Leake confirms he picked up the story by having the downright audacity to read the abstracts on the ESHRE’s website. I asked him what happened, and with no shame, he describes his heinous crimes:

“I read through all the abstracts and picked ones that I thought would make interesting stories. None of them appeared to have any embargo notices and all were, in any case, completely available for anyone to read”.

Indeed, Mr Leake also pointed out that he had previously run another story from these same abstracts, with no complaints.

It has since become clear that a “technical error” was the reason why the abstracts were available for all to see. But Ms Mason is unrepentant, and continues to blame Mr Leake. In her latest statement she says that their policy is clearly stated on the ESHRE website and this is that embargoes lift “at the time of presentation to the meeting, unless otherwise stated”.

I’m not sure what planet Ms Mason lives on but on planet Earth I don’t believe that anyone can be criticised for breaking a promise they never made. Nor, for that matter, for not abiding by a policy that a “technical error” rendered irrelevant. Ms Mason tells me, reassuringly, that “he knew what he was doing”. It is a pity, then, that the same cannot be said for ESHRE.

Ultimately all this squirming is just nonsense. Either the information was public or it wasn’t. If it was public, then it can be reported—no matter what notice you put on the website. If it was private, it needed to be behind a password-protected area which would have excluded Mr Leake. This is all so obvious that it is astonishing it needs stating.

Moreover, what is also surprising is that this email criticising Mr Leake was sent without calling him to check the facts. This is all sadly starting to be a familiar refrain. We heard it last year with Paul Sutherland (Life on Mars). I’ve heard it again and again in my years as a journalist. Embargoes are broken and some journalist who was not part of the system is maligned for doing his job.

When people who have worked hard on press releases find their work ruined by the actions of a lone journalist outside their network, the instinct is to assign blame on the journalist. I’m afraid this does not wash. Embargoes are meaningless if the information is already available. I can slap an embargo on the results of the previous general election, that doesn't make it mean anything.

And the embargo system cannot be enforced through the bullying of journalists who choose not to work with this system. The ESHRE ought to apologise to Mr Leake, and do so quickly.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Its only a phone

I had a reservation for a new Iphone from Apple today. Little did I realise that this would entitle me to arrive on the first day of launch and queue like a moron for up to 10 hours. So I went home empty handed. But I blogged about it on Economist's Babbage. Oh, and I posted the blog using the wifi at the Apple store in Regent's Street. Hehehe heh heh.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How did we get here?

Only two years ago The Stern Review concluded that preventing deforestation was a vital step towards curbing climate change. In his summary report he wrote: "At a national level, defining property rights to forestland, and determining the rights and responsibilities of landowners, communities and loggers, is key to effective forest management. This should involve local communities, respect informal rights and social structures, work with development goals and reinforce the process of protecting the forests."

Some countries have well-established customary rights, ownership from long and continual use. One might think that this would be a strong basis for action to protect forests but apparently not. Over in Papua New Guinea, the government seems to have decided to give itself the power to remove any rights to consultation with landowners over activities on their land, or to allow citizens to challenge such decisions in the courts. These actions seem extraordinary. I would guess they are a response to the fact that many landowners have decided to sign up to carbon deals with private companies, some of which have involved dubious activities. But even so, Stern had it bang on: respect informal rights. Don't undermine them.

The real question is whether any international agency or government is going to endorse such extraordinary behaviour by funding deforestation projects in PNG?

If you want, you can sign the petition to reverse the Environment Act amendments.


Reader Lucas Winston sends link with further background to new law.