Like a zombie, the ‘minute past midnight embargo’ haunts my press releases like an undead spectre. No longer fit for purpose, and yet still a ubiquitous header on the top of most attempts at proactive media relations, the phrase “Embargoed: 00:01h” is dead but not yet buried.
Every night, live on twitter, we watch newspaper websites smash through our default embargo by uploading digital versions of “tomorrow’s fish & chip paper”. As if to emphasise their war on our 00:01h embargoes, many journalists love nothing better than to preface their tweets ‘BREAKING’. The ‘news-cycle’ no longer starts at midnight but instead resembles more of a Möbius strip of perpetual motion.
Sometimes I feel like starting a press release with the line “Sunday4Monday” but you just know that when you ring up to complain, the Sunday Express journalist will say: “Yeah, but the press release said ‘Sunday’ on it, didn’t it?” If you want to really show off, you’d put “TAPING TAPING TAPING Embargoed: 22:01h” and treat twitter like the open-source wire service it really is. But I suspect when the No10 press office gives out a story like that, it happens via text message and the SMS starts “Dear Nick [Robinson]”.
What’s the fuss? Did “Embargoed: 00:01h” every really do exactly what it says on the tin? Just ask the producers of BBC Radio 5 Live’s ‘Up all night’ show. Those guys just love a minute past midnight embargo, and their audience of long distance truckers love them too. But even their show waits longer than a single minute to run your story on their opening bulletins.
But wait, what’s this? A bid from ‘Wake up to Money’… “You want to interview our chief economist, you say? No problem. You want him in a BBC studio live at 05:45h? Any BBC studio will do, but it has to be live at 05:45h? Hey, no problem. Thanks for being so flexible!”
Damn you, 00:01h embargo! We are never, ever, ever getting back together. It’s not you… It’s me. I just think that I’m more of a 07:00h kinda guy. And surely that’s the real choice these days, right? Do you settle down with the sensible breakfast broadcasters, or do you play fast and loose with those exotic and slight dangerous evening news shows?
Thank goodness for Newsnight (or @BBCAllegra as we know her), with whom you can serve up a late night supper disguised as an hors d’oeuvre and still have your main course in the next day’s newspapers. Just issue that 00:01h embargo, sit back and relax: just as long as you’ve given Newsnight a week’s notice, planned a filming facility and helped them book their live guests. But try that trick with Channel 4 News and you will come unstuck. “Well when I said it was exclusive, I meant you were the only newspaper we were giving it to. Wait, you’re dropping the story because the news desk saw it on Channel 4? Doh!”
OK, let’s forget the daily papers, let’s focus on the evening papers. Why not pre-brief the Evening Standard and then issue an ‘immediate release’ when they tweet their front page? No doubt that was the Treasury’s plan for the Budget, but that office junior jumped the twitter gun. Nothing new, explained Charlie Whelan, in perhaps one of the most touching twitter interactions of all time.
As I explained at our recent WonkComms get together, think tank press officers can learn a lot from government, not least about the modern news-cycle. When Alistair Campbell instituted ‘the grid’ each page covered a single week, had seven columns and started on a Sunday. Even under the reign of Damian McBride and his contrasting modus operandi, that structure was retained. These days, the Government grid starts on a Monday and only has six columns (the weekend is a single one at the end).
In a very small way, that might explain some of the Coalition’s news management issues. But recently they have begun to brief ‘process stories’ that illustrate they are ‘getting a grip’. Journalists have been favoured by press offices since the dawn of journalism but now No10 say they use ‘twitter exclusives’ as a formal reward system. No doubt they also have a No10 naughty step.
So if you think 00:01h has jumped the shark, you just go-ahead and get innovative. But I think that only chaos and confusion lie down that road. In our age of digital destruction, some things need to stay sacred. 00:01h might not literally mean 00:01h but we kinda know what it does mean and, hell, that’s good enough for me.
Yes, 00:01h is dead, but it is not yet buried. Until we can be sure what comes next, we need to stick to what we’ve always known. In the immortal words of news anchor Ron Burgundy, you stay classy San Diego.
Richard Darlington is a frustrated post-structuralist philosopher forced to work as Head of News at the think tank IPPR in order to make ends meet. Twitter has taken over his life, share his addiction by following @RDarlo. He writes here, as he tweets, in a personal capacity.