Halt the embargo

An edited version of this article first appeared in Village magazine, June 2018 edition.

Can you determine what the following news reports all have in common?

* Eoghan Murphy, Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government announced that Orders have been made directing that bye-elections be held to fill the vacancies in the Seanad caused by the resignation of Senator Denis Landy and Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh.

* The Green Party is to launch a Private Members’ bill which would see Dubliners vote for a directly elected Mayor with executive powers at the next local elections.

* Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum is delighted to announce the official launch of its new Dead Interesting tour. This is Glasnevin Cemetery as you’ve never seen it before, shining a spotlight on the Cemetery’s wonderful art, historical architecture, and its lesser-known but equally fascinating inhabitants.

* Simon Harris has ordered a national review of hospital car parking charges.

* The Citizens’ Assembly is today calling for submissions on the issue of fixed term parliaments.

The lacklustre prose might have tipped you off that all of the above items are from press releases, and so lack the sharpness good newspaper prose should have after subediting. But it’s not just PR-speak that distinguishes these news items. Each one was subject to a news embargo.

News embargoes are not unknown in Ireland, and are usually honoured. Sometimes, they are even lifesaving. A few years ago, to pick one example, the garda press office issued an alert to journalists about an “incident” where a man had barricaded himself inside a house. The brief notice asked journalists to respect a blackout in reporting the incident until it was resolved.

Sometimes, based on their assessment of a crisis situation, garda authorities will ask journalists to cover an event as much as possible, for example as a way of communicating directly with someone who may be listening to a radio. And sometimes, they ask for silence, to avoid inflaming a situation.

The barricading incident was resolved without tragedy, and the stand-off was then reported by the press. There’s no way to tell if the embargo helped or not, but it was observed by every journalist who learned about the case.

There’s no legal basis for a press embargo system. It’s just something that evolved over the years. One of the early factors in the tradition can still be seen in press releases labelled “check against delivery”. The text of a speech, usually from a minister or party leader, is leaked in advance to journalists to help them over the pressure of impending deadlines, but on the understanding that the journalist will listen to the speech in case the minister changes what he says at the last minute. Often of course, what the minister says in an off-the-cuff or unrehearsed remark departing from the script is often the most newsworthy event of the night.

Such a system made sense when print was the dominant news medium, and it took up to eight hours to get a news report from one end of the country to another. When a government or news website can upload the same speech in seconds, and then promote it through social media directly to citizens, the embargo makes less sense. On the (to be honest, not that frequent) occasions when the script contains urgent and newsworthy information, there is no reason why the planned script a minister is going to deliver should not be reported. And if the actual delivery changes, then that too is news to report.

A press embargo should be rare, and only invoked in the public interest. The barricading incident described earlier is a perfect illustration. But instead, it is abused more often than respected. Some embargoed stories, such as an increase or reduction in homeless numbers, are of immediate interest. Many, quite frankly, are not. In addition to numerous speeches by ministers and TDs, among the recent embargo requests I’ve received were the launch of a new website and app by a government agency, tractor testing regulations, the opening of a courthouse, and a speech about the cost of garda overtime. All worthy and worth reporting in the public interest, but few of immediate interest to the public, and certainly not meriting the spurious importance attached by the word “embargo”.

Most of the embargoes in my inbox are expire either at midnight, or at 4.30PM. In other words, they are blatant attempts to influence news coverage, hoping to feature prominently on either morning newspaper front pages, Morning Ireland, or evening drivetime news broadcasts. What should be a rare occurrence, urging media restraint in the public interest, has instead become a way for press officers to manipulate news cycles. It is time for journalists to ignore embargoes.

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