Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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"

Indeed.

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.

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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.

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