As far as scoops go, Sean Penn's interview with the fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was sensational. The notorious cartel boss, described as the world's most wanted man, had eluded police - and the media - since his escape from Mexico's highest security prison last year. Penn was put in touch with him after an actress, TV star Kate del Castillo, played the middlewoman.

The script fell apart as Penn's 11,000-word epic appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Guzman's luck and protection ran out. He was nabbed, but not before a gunfight left five of his gang dead. In the United States, where Guzman sent his illicit product and earned untold millions in the process, the debate shifted from drugs to media ethics: Penn - or rather the magazine - gave the Sinola narcotics dealer veto rights over the story before publication.

The implications of pre-publication approval stretch a long way. The practice creates in the reader a disturbing sense that the interview may not have proceeded if the subject was uncomfort-able with the line of questioning. It raises doubts about the independence of the title publishing the piece and dents the story's integrity.

In the Penn article, Rolling Stone said Guzman did not request any changes. Perhaps the mobster was satisfied Penn described him as a "Robin Hood-like figure" and did not dwell on the unsavoury facts - such as Guzman's 20-year prison term for murder and drug trafficking or the distressing number of Mexican journalists who have died or disappeared covering the cartels.


Copy approval is hardly unknown in publishing, despite the roar of disapproval which followed Penn's story. The arrangement might involve reading back quotes to a source to confirm their accuracy. Or perhaps a journalist covering a highly technical or complicated subject might want to run their story past the specialist involved to ensure they have the facts right. In the circumstances it amounts to an insurance policy and can avoid the messy problem of apologies and corrections. It is not unknown for disputes to arise from the arrangement, especially if a subject gets cold feet between the time of an interview and impending publication. And it is unusual for the practice to be disclosed.

For journalists reporting on crime and corruption, Mexico is a dangerous beat. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 35 reporters have been killed since 1992. Still more have gone missing. Since Penn's piece appeared, angry voices have surfaced from this group, rightfully upset that Guzman was not challenged about his brutal legacy.

Other voices missing from the El Chapo interview were the families of victims. It would not have been difficult to find them. By some accounts, Mexico's drug wars have cost 100,000 lives. For all that, Penn beat every big news organisation to one very big story. The result had holes, and the trappings of a Hollywood tale. But he also got from Guzman an admission of his drug dealing and boasts about the scale of his trade. On this yarn, the actor beat the professionals, which probably explains why they denounced him so loudly.