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.