A WEEK is a long time in politics and even longer in the life of a youth police and crime commissioner.
The fledgling career of Paris Brown, 17 who had won the £15k post was stopped before it even started after tweets she posted when 14 to 16 were uncovered by the Mail on Sunday.
They had found posts in which she had used the racist and homophobic terms ‘pikey’ and ‘fag’.
After an initial show of support from the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes, by yesterday it was clear things had gone too far when Kent Police announced they we investigating some of the posts on Twitter. Paris Brown announced in a press conference that she would not be taking up the post of youth commissioner.
So, was the MoS right to reveal the tweets of a teenager, and did she need to go? Well, probably yes to both questions. Here’s why.
In the normal course of things the tweets that she sent, for which she has now apologised, are not really a matter of public interest. While using those terms is always unacceptable, she was not targeting an individual in making them – she said, for instance, that the cast of Made In Chelsea all ‘looked like fags’. Unpleasant, certainly, but qualitatively different from applying that word to a individual gay person in a tweet directed at them.
So ordinarily one would say that this is probably not something that ought to concern a national newspaper and were the Daily Mail to do page leads on the offensive postings of teenagers, they would need to run a special supplement every day and a very large one at that. But they don’t, the Mail, despite views to the contrary expressed by its detractors on Twitter, and there are many, is not interested in the ill-considered tweets of the nation’s youth.
Paris Brown is only 17, and, as I tweeted yesterday, I would hate to be reminded of some of the deeply stupid things I probably said when I was that age. Pity the poor teenager today whose every tweet and Facebook post is potentially immortal, a digital albatross circling them for the rest of their life. They ought to be able to live down their indiscretions, offensive as they may be, just as those of us who grew up pre-Internet were able to do.
Many people Paris’s age use social media in the same way they would just talking in the pub – it is as full of the trite, offensive, deeply meaningful, nonsensical, emotional, heartfelt and daft as such conversations always have been. but now they are broadcast to the world, are permanent and searchable. To them a post on Facebook or Twitter is as simple and quick as thought, but they are thinking out loud, very loud.
So was the press in general and the MoS in particular, right to cover this in the way they did? This is where the public interest comes into play. Paris Brown was soon to be employed on the public purse, albeit that some of her salary would come from Ann Barnes’ own, it was still taxpayers’ money that would be funding her post. She would be responsible for engaging with people her age as part of that role. So her right to privacy has to be balanced against the public’s right to know what a public servant in this position actually thinks.
Given the fact that a youth commissioner charged with communicating with young people is inevitably going to do that by using social media, it is not unreasonable to ask what views she has expressed on those media.
It is a question that those employing her should perhaps have asked before announcing her appointment. To be fair to Ann Barnes, Ms Brown was put through Kent Police’s normal vetting process for the level of role she was taking up. That vetting process did not include looking at her postings on social media. One would imagine that that vetting process is being rapidly revised in light of recent events.
If they did not think of looking at Paris Brown’s tweets, it was blindingly obvious that any journalist worth his or her salt would do. It is what journalists do. Gay people in Kent and those from ethnic minority groups have a right to know what any public servant holding such a position thinks about them and the language they use gives you a clue.
In the end she did the right thing, which was inevitable once police were investigating, and declined the post. I suspect the police will shortly announce no further action, because if they take this to court, then they need to start building some new ones to cope with the influx of those who have posted similar and worse. She can, as she hopes, move on, and any social media consultants in Kent would do well to sign her up to provide true-life lessons to schools, colleges and universities on the perils of the intemperate post.
Paris Brown said yesterday she hoped this would stand as a lesson to young people. That is very true. Some surveys have shown that more than half of prospective employers look at potential employees social media postings, and 40 per cent of them don’t make a job offer as a result of what they find. You cast a long social media shadow, and along lasting one at that.
Ann Barnes said yesterday, referring to Leveson, that it was the role of the press to break news, but not to break people. Very true, and Paris Brown ought not to be broken by this now she has turned down her new post. But organisations cannot have it all ways, if you want your staff to engage on social media you have to accept the risks as well as the benefits that brings. You cannot control the every thought and tweet of your staff.
We are just beginning to understand the revolution in communication that social media has brought about. Paris Brown is a casualty of that revolution.
There will be many more.
Cobblers. A teenager should be able to make mistakes, learn from them, regret them. As you point out, how many of us can say that we’ve didn’t do things we’re not proud of when teenagers. To be hounded out of a job (which she hadn’t started), due to Tweets when she was 14 and 15 – by a white, middle class, male dominated press is wrong and pretty disgusting. Public money or not, she is a teenager and the Mail should be ashamed of itself (which I doubt is actually possible).
They should indeed, but back in the real world, they are not going to able to when appointed to such a post having used language like that.
Thank you, David. Yes, I doubt there is a person alive who didn’t make a mistake when they were teenagers, but without getting sanctimonious I hope, most people I know didn’t make mistakes involving spouting racist and homophobic epithets (even aged 14), nor, crucially, were they going to be paid £15k a year of public money for the benefit of their opinion either. That really is a key sticking point here. The sensible middle ground is for Paris to be given a break and the chance to move on, but only after stepping down. Again without sounding too pompous I hope, I struggle to believe there are no worthier candidates of the 150+who applied.
Part of the problem lies in the appointment and the appointment process. Vetting online presence should have been undertaken as it was obvious the press would do this. Youngsters now live their lives online and in a way this is a wake-up call for lots of people who don’t manage their online personas. As for the role itself, it is probably too much responsibility for most 17-year-olds on their own and the wage is what lots of adults earn for their full-time trained / skilled jobs. Why not a panel of younger people who can be consulted as necessary, offer a range of views and are paid for their time as and when.