When I was 17, a volunteer fireman in suburban Philadelphia threatened to beat me up over an article I was writing about a potential health hazard in a neighborhood where children played. Some years later, I would come face-to-face with the barrel of a machine gun as I covered the U.S. invasion of Panama.
I' ve learned not to take such things personally. Some people get a little edgy around journalists. Nevertheless, I thought I had put all that behind me when I began reporting on the genteel business of international standards.
I was mistaken.
I recently traveled to Durban, South Africa, to report on the next iteration of the popular ISO 9000 family of standards on quality assurance and quality management.
What may sound like ordinary coverage of an important story quickly evolved into an unprecedented event. John Davies, who chairs a key subcommittee of ISO's Technical Committee 176, which is charged with maintaining the international standards, declared an "embargo" on deliberations involving the next revision of key documents in the series. He said certain individuals might otherwise gain a competitive "advantage" through their participation in the standards-writing process.
As I sat in on the session taking notes on my laptop, Davies, retired director general of the Institute of Quality Assurance, a UK-based professional organization, summoned me to the front of the room where his group was meeting. Taking hold of my name badge, he demanded that I leave the room and threatened to "come after" me if I reported on the week-long series of meetings.
Though I was a guest of Reginald Shaughnessy, the international chairman of TC 176, Davies was not swayed. In fact, he took to the microphone and apologized that a journalist had breached the inner sanctum of his group.
Later, Shaughnessy apologized for Davies' conduct and said he believed in the importance of media coverage, or in his words, a transparent process. But, Shaughnessy acknowledged, there will be times when smaller working groups, comprised of technical experts, must go into closed sessions in order to achieve consensus on difficult issues.
This was not one of those times.
"At no stage should anybody be dealt with a lack of respect or in a way that affects the dignity of anyone present, especially in a quality forum where respect of the person and the person's contribution is key to success," Shaughnessy said.
They often depend upon business publications such as this one to provide information on any new or proposed revisions to existing standards. After all, many of these companies will need to address these requirements in the future.
While a number of delegates say they are appalled by Davies' behavior, they admit they are now afraid to speak on the record about their work for fear of breaking his embargo.
Donald Marquardt, the lead U.S. delegate to TC 176, said he was the one who informed Davies that a journalist was among the approximately 150 delegates in the hotel meeting room that day. He said his action should not be construed as a complaint, though he does not support unlimited press access to committee meetings.
He is apparently not alone. Another ISO committee that has received much attention in recent months- TC 207, charged with developing the ISO 14000 series standards on environmental management- was considering a proposal as of press time that would greatly restrict media access to its meetings.
This issue must not be taken lightly. The standardization process has become too important to our global economy to be conducted in a back-room atmosphere. If industry perceives the process to be open only to a privileged few, it won't be long before firms begin to feel disenfranchised and the standards themselves lose credibility.
Let"s face it: These meetings don't draw the tabloids. Standards bodies like ISO and its U.S. member, the American National Standards Institute, must realize that most people are too busy to join committees. They barely have time to keep up with the latest business news.
The alternative is to retain a consultant with a seat in the standards-writing process. But that can be expensive. And official publications and press releases often fail to provide a substantive treatment of the issues.
Standards bodies must ask themselves who they are ultimately there to serve.
Paul Scicchitano is senior editor of "Quality Systems Update," a monthly newsletter and information service by Irwin Professional Publishing devoted to ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 issues. For more information, telephone (703) 591-9008, fax (703) 591-0971, or e-mail email@example.com.
Copyright 1995 by QCI International. It is unlawful to reprint, retransmit, or otherwise reproduce this article, except for personal use, without the written permission of QCI International (which gladly grants permission when asked). Call (800) 527-8875 or fax (916) 527-6983.