One of the most frustrating things in journalism is sticking to the rules. It comes second only to sticking to the rules while someone else breaks them.
No, scratch that. It comes third. Second is sticking to the rules while someone else breaks them. First is when you ask the people who set the rules what you should do now, only to be met by scorn.
So. We knew some time ago that Microsoft was going to be releasing news and details of Office 2010, and was doing a series of pre-briefings under embargo - which, as a matter of purely academic interest, was due to come off at 2:30 UK time today. We arranged for an expert freelance to get stuck in, got ready and awaited the witching hour.
Others did not, and this morning a large 'Complete Guide to Office 2010' appeared. That's fine: embargoes are often broken and I'm sure that those who published it thought they were doing their readers a service by presenting a filleted version of the reviewers' guide from Microsoft. The penalty for breaking an embargo is usually to be cold shouldered from thereon in: there's no point in giving another embargo'd story to an embargo breaker. Clearly, the people concerned had decided (as we've done many times in the past) that the benefits from agreeing to embargos aren't worth it (although I'd prefer to just not agree to one).
However, this left us with a problem. In general, once an embargo is broken it's off for everyone. But still, we thought we'd check with MS - it's not as if they could morally complain, but it's worth letting them know what we were doing and why, out of politeness if nothing else.
Back came the message: we're trying to sort this out, be terribly good if you could stick to the plans...
Well, perhaps. It's only Office, after all. But then the official Microsoft twitter account @MicrosoftEMEA twittered a link - with a smiley - to the embargo breaker's copy. A hack twittered back, saying "Thanks for applauding someone breaking the embargo" only to get a direct message saying "I'm not sure if you taking the Michael? :)". A similar tweet from me got a "me, "official",??? I couldn't possible endorse that kind of behaviour."
Hard to see as MS holding up its end of the embargo deal.
To most sane people, this is the tiniest storm in the twee-est thimble of a cup. But to us, it really gets in the way of doing our job.
And it's just one in a long series of events that seems to show Microsoft has lost interest in even pretending to play fair by the press. There's another embargo'd MS announcement coming up later this week, and the pre-briefing on that was by all reports cack-handed. And I'm not the only journalist to have recently been promised something and then have it withdrawn. I just lost a few hours and gained a few inches of mercury on the blood pressure: others have had the rug pulled out from under them after they'd made major changes to their travel plans. For freelance writers, that sort of thing can be devastating. For Microsoft, it's clearly meh.
All this sounds like a whinge, and to some extent it is. It's more a call for clarity from MS: if you don't want to deal with the press, just say so. Open derision is at least a step forward into openness, and lord knows we've asked you for that enough times.
Let us know where we stand.