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Guardian explains its vanishing ricin story

Not totally convincingly...

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Things certainly move fast in the news business - six months after 'disappearing' a particularly valuable article on the ricin 'conspiracy' trial from its web site, the Guardian has put it back, and taken a stab at explaining itself. But it has not, we fear, been entirely successful.

We covered the original disappearance here, while the article itself is now back in (almost) all its glory here. Back in April it swiftly became apparent that the Guardian had pulled the original article because it had inadvertently breached the terms of a Public Interest Immunity Certificate. The PII in question was intended to keep the names of the Porton Down scientists who gave evidence at the trial confidential. The Guardian (it now tells us) had been unaware of the existence of the PII, and had named them, following which the Ministry of Defence drew its attention to the PII, and it pulled the article.

All of that makes sense, apart from the bit about pulling the article, and the six months the Graun has spent contemplating its navel. So, cue Guardian Readers' Editor Ian Mayes' explanation. "In the light of the letter from the Ministry of Defence," writes Mayes, "the Guardian immediately removed the article from its website. It did so on the advice of its lawyers, who then set out to clarify the situation and in particular to obtain a copy of the relevant order."

Back in April removing the whole article rather than just chopping out the names seemed a serious overreaction, and six months on the Guardian's restoration of the article after, er, just chopping out the names does seem to confirm this.

It was, back in April, perfectly possible to confirm the nature and existence of the PII without going through the loops Mayes' explanation describes, and it was probably just about possible to do this and edit the article accordingly without taking it down in the first place. Failing that, it was certainly feasible to have it back up in edited form within a couple of days. The reason this didn't happen, we would suggest, has nothing to do with the "conspiracy theories" Mayes mentions, and quite a lot to do with the Guardian not quite grasping that the standard defensive legal moves you make in paper publishing aren't always the ones you should make in web publishing.

With paper publishing your concern is usually the damage you may have already done and you're generally not in any great hurry, while in the case of web publishing it's still up there until you take it away. So you need to make a rapid assessment of the damage, what's causing it and what you should do about it. Safety first says pull the lot, but that's not satisfactory in the longer term, because when word gets around that you'll give in the moment a lawyer says boo, well, they're all going to be at it, aren't they?

The Guardian is widely regarded (not least, by itself) as a web publishing success, and as such it seriously needs to get its corporate head around this, particularly in the case of a story as important as the ricin one. Mayes asks the right questions in his final paragraph, but we're not sure whether or not the last sentence is supposed to count as an adequate answer to all of them. ®

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