The Australian has been banned by a leading science media network after it ignored an international embargo on the findings of journal article in its hard copy edition yesterday.

Despite being granted an exclusive interview with the study’s researcher and provided with an advance copy of the press release on strict condition the story was not to appear, Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell decided to run a page-three yarn on a US science journal Circulation study seven hours before the blackout was officially lifted.

The Australian Science Media Centre, which co-ordinates media coverage for Australian scientists, had set an 8am Tuesday embargo in line with the US embargo stipulated by the American Heart Association, which publishes Circulation. By ignoring the blackout, The Australian secured a world exclusive on too-much-TV-will-kill-you yarn, trumping other outlets who decided to keep their powder dry.

The national broadsheet’s breach promoted an angry riposte from AusSMC spinner Lyndal Byford, who slapped the paper with a three- month ban as a “consequence of these actions” in an email late yesterday.

“The AusSMC has decided to remove all journalists from The Australian from our media lists for a period of three months. During this time, we will not supply them with round-ups of expert comment, briefings or heads-up alerts.

“The majority of the embargoes on stories … are set by the journals involved, often with US or UK time zones in mind. While this can mean that they are far from ideal for Australian publications, this is no excuse. There is no such thing as a ‘sort of’ or ‘close enough to print time’ embargo. They are global embargoes and we must adhere to them to maintain good relationships with journals and institutions,”  she wrote.

Crikey understands that Australian science reporter Leigh Dayton was told in writing that she could interview Professor David Dunstan, the author of the study, on the strict condition that the paper would hold back its coverage until 8am on Tuesday. Instead, Dayton filed the story on Monday evening for the Tuesday edition, which hit the streets about 1:30am and appeared on online news service Lexis Nexis, but not on The Australian‘s website, shortly afterwards.

Dayton told Crikey that the hard copy edition of the paper would be behind the curve if it didn’t publish early.

“It’s the convention amongst Australian science reporters who regularly cover journal stories and source our material independently of the AusSMC. We do print on the day of an early-morning embargo but don’t go online til afterwards and that includes overseas outfits.”

Dayton said the decision to publish early “didn’t matter” because it would have been impossible for US media to view a copy of the story before the embargo was lifted. However, she was unable to name an instance when she had previously ignored an embargo.

Curiously, the Australian appears to have decided to cover its tracks today, finally posting Dayton’s piece at 12:42pm with the timestamp of “January 12, 2010 9:52AM”. Earlier today, the story was nowhere to be seen.

A spokesperson for the American Heart Association told Crikey that The Australian‘s decision to flout the blackout was “disappointing”.

“In this age of digital communication it’s not fair to other reporters who wanted to cover the story — the reason we had an embargo is so there’s a level playing field.

“It’s unfortunate when something like this happens. We would have got much more coverage if it hadn’t been broken.”

The spokesperson said Dayton would face a six-month ban on receiving press releases, with The Australian ousted for one month.

The issue of when and why journalists break embargoes is a complex one, especially in the era of instantaneous news. Following TechCrunch’s decision in 2008 to break every embargo to flow across its newsdesk, the Wall Street Journal appeared to follow suit, by ignoring rather than publishing embargoed news, unless it was gifted an exclusive. Journalists also break embargoes when they feel they are being manipulated into publishing at a time that is advantageous to the spruiker in question. However, The Australian’s reasoning — that the hard copy of the paper would lose out — has received a lot less consideration.

This isn’t the first time The Australian has been embroiled in a controversy over its hard copy edition. Last August, Crikey revealed that an edition reporting on terror raids in Melbourne’s northern suburbs were available three hours before they were to take place — potentially tipping off targets over their imminent arrest.

Peter Fray

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