Update 23 July 2015: Guardian.com Editor accepts conclusion Danone sponsorship was a mistake and thanks Baby Milk Action for prompting more rigorous scrutiny of potential sponsors (see below).

The Guardian, 18 May 2015The readers’ editor on … sponsorship of roundtables (full text – open for readers’ comments).

The Guardian Readers’ Editor has investigated Danone sponsorship of a roundtable discussion and subsequent article following complaints by Baby Milk Action and others. He has concluded the sponsorship was “a mistake” and a “sponsorship governance group” will now consider conflicts of interest.

DonateBaby Milk Action was contacted by experts invited by The Guardian to a roundtable on nutrition during the first 1000 days sponsored by Danone.  They were concerned about the conflicts of interest. We contacted the organisers asking them to think again and provided evidence of Danone’s ongoing systematic breaking of baby food marketing rules, including from past reports in The Guardian.

The Guardian went ahead with the event regardless and published a two-page article. While claiming the journalist had written up the discussion independently, the inherent bias meant the article promoted the company’s objectives by suggesting nutrition for successful breastfeeding is complex and not well understood, that complementary foods should be introduced earlier than Department of Health recommendations and that “collaboration between government and the food industry” was necessary to educate parents and parents-to-be. It was also striking what was missing from the article: journalists elsewhere had written critiques of Danone’s attempted hijacking of the first 1000 days message.

We finally received a response from The Guardian’s Head of Editorial for sponsored content after the article had appeared, defending the sponsorship and article, with the suggestion we write a letter for publication.

We thought the issues involved were too serious and contacted the Readers’ Editor at The Guardian, who investigated and published an article today, concluding:

The wider issues of sponsored content has led to the setting up of a sponsorship governance group at the Guardian, a weekly meeting of editorial and commercial managers who discuss ethical considerations and any potential conflicts of interest.

The Danone sponsorship should have gone to that group, a fact now accepted by the editors who were involved with the roundtables. I agree with the readers and think it was a mistake to go ahead with the Danone sponsorship because the subject of the debate could be interpreted as being too close to the subject of the controversy that has surrounded the company.

Full article and readers’ comments at:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/18/readers-editor-sponsorship-roundtables-chris-elliott

The Guardian is to be commended for employing a Readers’ Editor to investigate issues of importance to readers. His investigation has been thorough and if The Guardian now has measures in place to prevent a repeat then this is welcome.

See Baby Milk Action’s poster on Health workers, conflicts of interest and the baby feeding industry

Baby Milk Action needs your support to continue challenging and exposing conflicts of interest and holding the baby food industry to account. Can you make a donation or become a member?

Update 23 July 2015: We asked the Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner if she accepts the conclusion of the Readers’ Editor. We received the following response from the Editor of Guardian.com

Thank you for your latest email to the Editor-in-Chief, which has been passed to me for consideration.

I am happy to clarify that the Guardian accepts the Readers’ Editor’s conclusions about the Danone-sponsored round-table event.

Moreover, as Wendy Berliner explained in her emails to you, as a result of your helpful intervention we have taken the requisite steps to ensure that in future all proposed round-table events will be brought to the Sponsorship Governance Group for full and rigorous scrutiny, a process that can and does result in some proposals being turned down.

Yours sincerely,

Sheila Pulham

Managing editor, theguardian.com

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