That is the question in a summer that’s been marked by a string of broken media embargoes – from Benedict’s Hamlet to the flouting of a global literary launch. Is something rotten in the fourth estate or is this just symptomatic of our digital, news-hungry world?
It hasn’t just been the many ‘Cumberfans’ filming his performances on smartphones that has been getting Cumberbatch hot under the collar. In August, The Times and the Daily Mail broke media theatre protocol by reviewing the first preview of his production of Hamlet more than three weeks before the official press night.
The offending critics became the headlines and were vilified in some quarters. In their defence, it is easy to see how in a digital world, the national press might feel aggrieved when an influential blogger or someone with a large Twitter following is free to write about the performance before press night, but they are not. However, it does feel in this instance that these critics were also disrespectful of a long-standing agreement in theatre land.
The New York Times elected to break a global embargo by reviewing Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman revealing that the To Kill a Mockingbird’s protagonist, Atticus Finch, had become racist in later life. The paper couldn’t resist the story and defended its journalist by saying; “our policy is that we do not honour embargoes if we obtain a book independent of publishers’ official channels.” Er, that’s ok then and doesn’t sound dubious at all.
I haven’t witnessed too many broken embargoes on client news, but in the last few years there have been instances where stories with an embargo just after midnight are already across national press by 9pm. This is probably more a function of how national press websites are operating than a journalist desperately wanting to break a story, but it can cause problems.
For one listed infrastructure client, news appearing before the embargo meant that investor message boards became highly active and gave investors a head start on the news before the market opened at 7am the next day. Beyond the City, breaching the embargo can be similarly problematic for suppliers, stakeholders, employees and customers who can be caught out and unprepared for the news.
Like all broken promises, the disregarded media embargo is a breakdown in trust that’s always difficult to regain. You can’t see the critics at The Times and the Daily Mail getting a front row seat to see Hamlet at the Barbican anytime soon...
Matt Sutton is an associate director at Camargue