Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences

Sylvia Plath

Nov 13, 2014

See the copy? No chance!

Why you don't let people

see copy before publication

It’s the moment that makes a journalist grit their teeth and clench their fists.

Having completed and interview, the subject brightly says: “Will I be able to see the copy before publication?’’

What they leave unspoken is the addition: “and censor any bits I don’t like.’’

They always seem surprised when the answer – at least from any self-respecting journalist – is “No’’.

I’m sure most PR people warn their clients that this will be the case, but I wonder whether they truly understand the reasons why it is, or should be.

The main reason for refusing pre-publication sight of copy is not the journalist’s ego, or shouldn’t be. Having said that, it is not necessarily over precious for them to be offended at the unspoken questioning of their integrity or competence implicit in the request.

Nor is it because giving sight of the copy before publication invariably causes delays, hassles and argument.

No, the overriding reason is journalistic ethics.

Gentle reader, before you snort with derision at that very concept, I ask you to imagine the following scenario.

You have just watched Evan Davis grilling David Cameron on Newsnight. You were impressed with the interview, Davis put some hard questions and pushed hard on them but Cameron performed well, seeming to genuinely want to give answers. He appeared to be on the ropes at times, but generally you came away with a favourable impression of his performance and felt that you were better informed than you were before. Well done Newsnight.

Supposing you then discovered that the before it was broadcast a tape of the interview had been sent to 10 Downing Street which then removed parts where Cameron didn’t perform so well, where his answers were evasive or plain dishonest. In fact, you also learn, he was allowed another session with Davis, revisiting certain questions and giving different answers.

Wouldn’t’ you feel cheated, as though you had been the victim of an essentially dishonest piece of journalism?

This is why an interviewee should not be shown copy before publication – it is being dishonest with the reader, who is entitled to feel that any piece of journalism is an independent, third party piece of reporting, unmediated by the subject of that journalism.

That’s why you can’t see the copy before publication and why you shouldn’t even ask.