THE DAIRY WORKERS UNION AGAINST THE WAIKATO TIMESThe New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint by the Dairy Workers Union against the Waikato Times over the breaking of an embargoed news item.
On March 3 the New Zealand Dairy Workers union faxed a press release to newspapers, advising that the union would recommend that its members accept a nil wage increase in the negotiations about to start with the New Zealand dairy companies. The press release was clearly marked “Embargoed until 10pm, 5th March 1999”
The embargo was placed by the union as it wished to inform the dairy companies and hold meetings to canvass delegates and union members on the recommendation, before the news became public. The news was obviously of interest to the broad community of dairy farmers, and the union recognised this by offering it in the form of a widely disseminated press release.
On Thursday March 4, the union’s national secretary Mr Ray Potroz was advised by the agricultural reporter of the Waikato Times that the newspaper intended to run the news contained in the embargoed press release in its second edition the next afternoon, some hours before the embargo expired. Mr Potroz talked to the deputy editor, and asked for the embargo to be respected.
The following day Mr Potroz faxed a letter to the editor stating that the press release was offered to the Waikato Times with a very clear and strict condition, the embargo, and asked that the paper observe this. The editor’s faxed response was that the newspaper did not invite Mr Potroz to send the press release and that he did so at his own risk. “It is not for you to decide when to use it,” the editor said, and advised Mr Potroz he should have sought the newspaper’s agreement to the terms beforehand. The editor argued that the information was in the public arena because the New Zealand Dairy Group was already aware of the union’s negotiating offer.
The press release was published in the first edition that Friday, some nine hours before the embargo expired. Mr Potroz said he was told it was to be published in the second edition later on Friday afternoon, which in his opinion may have limited the damage already done by the embargo being broken.
Mr Potroz complained to the Press Council about the broken embargo, reporting that the effect for the union was that many of its members heard about the wage recommendation through the paper rather than through the union’s own networks. He said the union had to act to recover the damage done by the early release of the information.
The editor’s explanation was that she considered the information of a nil wage offer was of public interest, already abroad and timed for first use by an opposition newspaper. It was the editor’s opinion that it was not the newspaper’s responsibility to manage the release of information to interested parties, and that by releasing the information in advance, Mr Potroz was effectively trying to muzzle the newspaper for 48 hours.
This is a clear case of a breach of an embargo. The editor is unequivocal about this and advances no explanation that the information for the story was obtained by legitimate, alternative means. Instead, the editor offers justification for abandoning the well-recognised convention by which the media respects embargoes; an admission of the strength of this convention is shown by the fact a reporter was assigned to make Mr Potroz aware that his press release was to be published before the embargo expired.
Breaching a clear embargo in this way is an unacceptable practice. If a newspaper has been unable to dig out important public information in advance of its rivals through solid contact work, to compensate by simply taking the contents of an embargoed press release and throwing away the strict condition of its release is lackadaisical and counterproductive. It is not the way to preserve this very useful protocol.
If all publications found the embargo simply an impediment to be ignored, those who use the embargo to assist the flow of news would decline to release any information in advance, and the media would be the main loser. The converse is true: if the convention of the embargo is to work, all sections of the media need to observe the well-accepted guidelines. Embargoed information is sent to the media with a clear understanding that the actual words and content have a definite release time, which is not the opening of a negotiation. Most embargoed information is generally released closer to the time of the embargo, enough to allow for preparation of stories, but a longer lead time does not lessen the import nor the force of the embargo.
The Press Council has been strict in its support of the embargo. In 1979, when the Union Steamship Company complained about three newspapers publishing embargoed news before it had a chance to inform trade union employees, governments and the shippers affected, the Press Council asked the Newspaper Proprietors' Association to remind editors of the importance of release times being observed. In 1985, the council also agreed with the then Postmaster-General Jonathan Hunt that embargoes on material such as is released by a Minister of the Crown were a long-standing practice, and newspapers could reasonably be expected to adhere to them.
Members of the public who release embargoed statements to the media have an interest in adherence by the media to the convention. The suppliers of the information should have an expectation of the media abiding by the convention of the embargo after organising their own affairs to coincide with the timing of the release. If made public earlier it can cause to them embarrassment and harm. The essence of an embargo is that it is the fairest system to all participants.
At the same time, the Press Council recognises that experienced editors are reluctant to be fenced in by those who would manage the news, whether by carefully crafted public relations language, by delaying the release of information, or by favouring sympathetic outlets. The diligent pursuit of real news with the aim of being the first to break it is at the heart of good journalism, but simply discarding the embargo on a planned announcement is not a justifiable substitute.
The complaint is upheld.