Embargo your own way?

In a world of fluid online media, controlling news is harder than ever as a recent dispute on Twitter demonstrates.

On Thursday, influential legal blogger Jack of Kent published an ‘exclusive’ story reporting the Conservative party’s plans for reform of the Human Rights Act and related judicial procedure. To summarise, the Tories want to scrap the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

This story is controversial enough as it is, but Jack of Kent’s publication prompted much consternation among the Westminster Lobby hacks because he broke the embargo on the press release. James Chapman of the Daily Mail and Paul Waugh of Politics Home both criticised the blogger’s actions, claiming that scrutiny of the proposals would not have been harmed by waiting a further nine hours to publish at the same time as the rest of the media. Indeed, Waugh claimed that embargoes can aid public scrutiny if releases are distributed to stakeholders and interest groups, as well as journalists.

Twitter conversations with Jack of Kent and journalists

By contrast, Jack of Kent argued that there was a clear public interest in publishing early to allow as much as possible time for scrutiny of the proposals. Moreover, as the release was not provided directly under embargo, the blogger was not obliged to respect the release date. Media Guido concurred, while acknowledging that Jack of Kent was undoubtedly “attention seeking”.

The minor furore illustrates an interesting point about the continued erosion of the privileged position once enjoyed by the mainstream traditional media (and indeed, by extension, PR agencies). The embargo has been used in public relations for decades, providing security and peace-of-mind to journalists and communications professionals alike. By setting a specific time and date for publication (usually 00.01), organisations can ensure that their news is distributed in a controlled fashion and optimise coverage. By respecting an embargo, journalists can put in sufficient time to researching and writing up the story, while also ensuring that they aren’t scooped by their competitors.

This cosy gentlemen’s agreement has suited all involved for years. Most people who work in PR have had an embargo broken but this usually due to misunderstanding, rather than malice or spite. However, the ever increasing number of new participants in the media space has made these fragile truces ever more difficult to maintain. Certainly, those who are not included within the distribution of a press release have far less of an incentive to keep it quiet if they obtain a copy.

Moreover, many bloggers and online news sites explicitly trade on the fact that they are outside of the mainstream and therefore aren’t bound by the same rules. Indeed, it’s been nearly six years since TechCrunch declared war on the embargo (and PR agencies) by promising to break any embargo they were given.

The same trend can be seen across the media industry, and it’s not just gentlemen’s agreements that are being broken. In 2011, the widespread breaches of superinjunctions on social media meant that many were largely redundant anyway by the time the newspapers reported them following the intervention of Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming in parliament.

Ultimately, attempts to constrain and control the news are increasingly ineffectual, whether they are legal or consensual, or practiced by journalists or public relations professionals. New forms of media increasingly call on us to take a more collaborative and fluid approach to both communications and news.


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