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Tuesday, 29 January 2008

An interesting conflict

Here’s a cautionary tale that concerns the definition of a conflict of interest and, to some extent, the definition of a freelance journalist. I’d be interested to hear what others make of it.

First, some background. As a freelancer, I have written for publications including Nature, New Scientist, The Economist, The Guardian and The Lancet. I’ve also done sporadic writing jobs for other organisations.

For example, I once wrote a report for Oxfam on the humanitarian implications of genetically modified crops, and intermittently over the years I have written stories for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin, about the work of the scientists the HHMI funds. In case anyone is not familiar with the HHMI, it is a non-profit medical research institute and one of the largest private funding organisations for biomedical research in the USA.

A few months ago, having completed a job for the HHMI Bulletin, it occurred to me that the work of one of those scientists could form the core of a feature for a mainstream science news publication. Having been asked by one of Nature’s biology features editors to come up with ideas for them, I took my pitch there. The chief news and features editor, Oliver Morton, said he would raise it at the next features meeting. Another editor, Brendan Maher, then contacted me: he thought it was a great idea but he’d like to know more. We spoke on the phone, and in the course of that conversation I mentioned how I had come across the story. He instantly told me there was a problem because, having written for the Bulletin, I had a conflict of interest.

I was amazed. I hadn’t mentioned the Bulletin until then because it had not crossed my mind that it would present a problem. Brendan told me I had been “on the payroll” of the mouthpiece of a private funding source. I explained that I was not on anyone’s payroll; there was nothing rolling about it. I was a freelancer, and my relationship with the Bulletin (as with Nature) ended each time I received the fee for a piece of work I had done for them. This seems to me the definition of being freelance, and one of the few perks of the job: we don’t owe allegiance to any single publication.

The argument went back and forth, with Brendan suggesting at one point that he would overlook the conflict of interest issue if I could convince him of the importance to Nature of publishing the story, and at another that a way around it might be if I agreed to have included in my byline the statement that I had worked for the Bulletin, but had in no way been influenced by it in writing the piece. Considering it a matter of principle, I refused to do either. I took the matter to Oliver, who told me that the problem was less whether there actually was a conflict of interest, and more if readers perceived there to be one. His duty was to protect the journal’s credibility.

I can’t argue with perception, only with reality, and I agree that that is his duty. However, I think that while being scrupulous about not commissioning stories from journalists whose objectivity is potentially compromised, editors should also be fair.

Oliver gave the following examples, implying they were relevant to my case. He wrote in an email, “So, for example, I would not have written journalistically about the Rockefeller Foundation while I was also writing for them, nor about EPSRC [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council]…for whom I did some freelance a decade or so ago.”

Curiously, he too seems to have assumed that I had an ongoing relationship with the Bulletin, without asking if I was currently writing for them or had plans to do so again in future. Since neither was the case, his first example was irrelevant. The second was just scary.

I can’t be the only freelancer to be alarmed by the length of (unpaid) gardening leave he expects of us—and that just for writing for the “mouthpiece” of a non-profit organisation whose stated goal is to further basic research, and which never prevented me from writing critically about the recipients of its largesse.

What constitutes a conflict of interest? Out of curiosity I put this question to the National Union of Journalists, and was referred to its code of conduct. The code is extremely general on this point, but the bottom line is that it’s not just about financial or other personal gain, and each case is different.

Three NUJ officers were generous with their advice. They all said, in effect, that they agreed with me. However, the editor was entitled to his decision and they could hardly criticise him for being too fastidious. They also told me to shut up if I ever wanted to work for him again. I had pretty much the same response from the science editor of a major UK newspaper.

Of course, I would like to write for Nature again, though my opinion of the journal has gone down, infinitesimally, since I realise how it must be narrowing its field in terms of the pitches it considers. For a while I fully intended to shut up. In the end, though, I changed my mind.

Given that not many freelancers I know could survive if every publication practised Nature’s current policy, and given that I believe science news coverage in the UK would be poorer without us, I thought it would be worthwhile airing an issue that is central to the way we work and earn our living. My case is closed, but as I said at the outset, I’d be interested to know what others think about it, and whether they’ve had similar experiences. In the meantime, as I merrily burn my bridges around me, I issue the following warning to freelancers: think very carefully about who you accept commissions from, and if you want to write for Nature, think at least 10 years into the future.

Laura Spinney
Freelance writer based in Paris and London
Buy my latest novel, The Quick, at:http://tinyurl.com/2u3lxg