Embargoes, NDAs, and loopholes

This Consumerist piece is a good summary of the not-terribly-secret world of the press embargo, which in the computer world manifests itself in those sudden snowstorms of online reviews that show up for each new piece of PC gear, all on the same day and nearly on the same hour.

There are, as the Consumerist piece makes clear, some perfectly valid reasons for embargoes to exist. But they're mainly just another way for the makers of news to control the journalistic process, just as the precious gift of "access" prevents journalists at White House press conferences these days from saying... well, anything much.

The whole embargo/Non-Disclosure Agreement thing has pretty much passed me by, since I'm not a worker bee for a big hardware site, and I always stick to the Never Sign Anything rule - which is also a good policy when confronted with forms that say that if the $20,000 devkit PlayStation 4 you've just been handed breaks while in your custody, you have to pay for it. Frankly, I'm surprised anybody ever signs those.

Anyway, here's my embargo story.

I broke the embargo on the Pentium 4, back in late 2000 when I was still working for the Dark Lord Murdoch.

Well, technically perhaps I didn't break the embargo, because nobody ever made me sign anything; I never even saw an embargo form, though I was of course aware that Intel meant there to be one.

What happened was, a new and exciting P4 computer (except not really, what with the low initial clock speeds and the Curse of Rambus Memory) showed up in our chaotic New Economy office. It was addressed and delivered to someone in the advertising sales department, let's call him Pete, who had no idea what to do with it, though he thought it might fetch a lot of money on eBay.

Pete asked the General Manager what to do. The GM knew I wrote reviews and so sent him to me.

I was pleased with my new toy.

I also observed that there was no Non-Disclosure Agreement form to sign in, on or around the computer's carton, and asked Pete if he'd signed anything.

He hadn't.

So I took the computer home, ripped through the review at warp speed, and published it on the Australian IT site, scant hours before the embargo deadline every other reviewer was sticking to.

(You won't find the review there any more, or anything else I wrote. That's because of the goldfish-like memory of various news.com sites, which I've mentioned before. The review's here on dansdata.com, though, in case you want to relive the days when 256Mb of RAM for a P4 cost one thousand eight hundred Australian dollars.)

As it turned out, there was an embargo notification included with the P4. It was one paragraph in the middle of the cover letter, which I don't think Pete ever gave me. Intel later agreed that a larger font size, and perhaps even investing in a colour printer, might have been an idea, while they revamped their system to make sure they didn't keep sending review hardware to ad men, graphic designers or the muffin delivery guy.

The review, as you'd expect, was massively popular... for the several hours it was up, before Intel Australia told us to take it down again until after the embargo time.

Since it wasn't exactly a Watergate-level story, we did. It would have been pretty funny if we told them to get knotted, left it up, and then sat back to see whether they refused to have any further dealings with the tiny and unimportant News Limited media channels, though.

Intel (or at least their PR people) weren't actually noticeably upset about the whole thing, so it would have been churlish to turn it into a big argument.

Then, though, a moderate amount of hell broke loose, with a few other hardware writers castigating me for not playing the game. One awfully famous fellow insisted that I simply had to have signed an NDA, most likely in blood, and then deliberately broken it, and was therefore a lying son of a bitch and could forget about ever seeing any links from his site to mine ever again. Until he forgot all about it, and all of the other sites he'd blacklisted for various other real or imagined sins, a year or three later.

I also received feedback from one of the hacks at The Register, where actual journalists work.

She said obviously The Reg would have run the story if they'd had the chance, and as early as possible too. What sort of pillock wouldn't?

You can tell a real journalist by the nicotine stains, the cirrhosis of the liver, and the refusal to treat PR people with the respect they don't deserve.

A journo's a pretty low form of life, but there are plenty lower.

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