Sun wins embargo ban U-turn after 'life on Mars' row

The Sun has had its ban on receiving embargoed science news lifted, after the tabloid successfully argued that its ‘life on Mars’ scoop was the result of ‘good-old fashioned journalism’ and not an embargo break.

Press Gazette revealed last week that The Sun had been hit with a six-month ban by US newswire EurekAlert after it published a front-page splash on the discovery of methane on Mars.

EurekAlert had sent out an embargoed press release on the discovery, but Sun journalist Paul Sutherland said he was unaware of the release and his story was obtained through other means.

In an email to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the body which sponsors EurekAlert, Sun head of news Chris Pharo said: “Paul Sutherland received prior notification from Nasa of their impending press conference.

“He applied his working knowledge to the information in that release and came to the conclusions that led to our story. We take embargoes seriously.”

The Association of British Science Writers, which has launched a review into the protocol surrounding embargoes, also wrote to EurekAlert urging it to reconsider its ban on The Sun.

ABSW chairman Ted Nield wrote: “It seems to me that EurekAlert is penalising The Sun merely for having got to a story first, without the help of Nasa press releases.

“I do not think this is in the correct spirit of the proper relations between news providers and journalists.”

He added: “It is inevitable that other news outlets, many of which consider themselves very important, will have been dismayed by the fact that they were scooped by Paul and The Sun – but that is surely the nature of journalism and should have no bearing upon the case.

“It is my view that to ban The Sun in this way is unfairly penalising that newspaper merely for being first with the story.”

Press Gazette has learned that EurekAlert has now lifted the ban and admitted that it “might have made a wrong call”.

But the American Association for the Advancement of Science has warned that it will take further action if embargoes are broken in the future, following what it said was a “troubling spate of UK-based embargo violations”.

The group has welcomed the ABSW’s review of the protocol surrounding embargoes – launched last week – and said its findings would help clarify best practice.

The ABSW committee will report back with its draft findings at this summer’s World Conference of Science Journalists, to be held in London at the end of June.

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