IN what are its dying days the Press Complaints Commission made an extraordinary decision this week when it said it could adjudicate on journalists’ personal social media accounts.
It upheld a complaint from a councillor on harassment, Clause 4 of the Editors’ Code, over Facebook postings by Lorraine King of the Brent&Kilburn Times.
She had received an email from Councillor Jim Moher complaining that letters he had sent to the paper had not been published that week. She was on compassionate leave at the time following the death of her mother.
On her Facebook account she posted messages which said: “I plan to make his life a misery as much as possible” and “Lord God forgive me if I bump into him before I get back to work, you will be visiting me in Holloway”. The post were visible to 250 of her 1,000 friends and had attracted a number of comments and ‘likes’.
The councillor was made aware of the postings and he made a complaint to the PCC, which was upheld.
In its adjudication the PCC said: “The complainant’s concerns about the postings on Facebook related directly to the news editor’s contact with the complainant in her professional role, and had been viewed by individuals she had come into contact with as part of that role, a number of whom were personally acquainted with the complainant. The complaint could therefore be framed as a complaint under Clause 4 of the Code, which states that “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit”.
“The comments had contained abusive language, personal insults and an implied threat of violence – albeit not one which the Commission considered was intended to be taken seriously. Further, they appeared to suggest that the news editor intended to use her professional role to make his “life a misery”. The newspaper had not denied that the complainant was readily identifiable as the subject of the remarks, which had been published to a wide audience. While the Commission acknowledged that the comments had been published at a difficult time for the news editor personally, it had no hesitation in finding that this constituted intimidation within the meaning of Clause 4, and a serious failure to uphold the highest professional standards required by the preamble to the Code.”
The PCC does not adjudicate on social media postings by newspapers, but it does cover their use by journalists in terms of professional conduct.
Accepting the adjudication, Archant, publishers of the Brent&Kilburn Times, said: “Following the ruling, Archant is reviewing and re-issuing its existing social media guidelines, to ensure all editorial staff are reminded of their obligations, both under the Editors’ Code and the company’s policies. All Archant editorial staff have clauses written into their contracts of employment making it clear they must adhere to the Editors’ Code at all times.”
It think the PCC has made a mistake here, setting a worrying precedent that its successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, has to decide whether to follow when it begins regulating the press in September.
Let’s consider the issues.
Firstly, we can dismiss the idea that this Facebook account was private. Personal yes, private, no.
It had 1,000 friends and the posts in question could be seen by 250 and were ‘liked’ by 54. That is not private, that is publishing to an audience.
Given the rich vein that social media faux pas have provided for journalists in recent years, it is the height of hypocrisy for us to claim that such mistake by one of our own were somehow private.
If this had been an exchange between two councillors, discovered by a reporter on that paper, would they have used it? Of course they would, a page lead at very least and on a quiet week, a splash.
Secondly, we should look at the exchange involved. The councillor knew the journalist had suffered a recent bereavement, having, as he pointed out, sorted out parking arrangements for grieving relatives. Yet still he emailed about missing letters. He deserved a robust response via email, saying the matter would be dealt with on the journalist’s return to work, or a suggestion that he take the matter up with staff who were in work, not a news editor who was on leave after a bereavement.
The news editor’s response on Facebook was not wise, to say the least, but in the array of misjudged social media posts we have seen it was pretty mild. However, it was a journalist expressing ill will towards someone her newspaper covers. Bias is something we are constantly accused of in the press, often by every shade of the political spectrum, and this post confirmed those usually unfounded suspicions.
The question is who should deal with this? Is it really the PCC?
I would argue not. That does not mean it should not be dealt with, but it should be a matter between the editor and the journalist, not the PCC.
This was not a Facebook feed for the paper, it was not posted in work, or during working hours, the journalist was on leave.
Is the PCC really saying that it can police every utterance by a journalist on any forum they make it? It has made a rod for IPSO’s back if that is the case.
I have been of the opinion for some time that journalists should be careful about what they put on social media. The line in so many biographies ‘my views not those of my employer’ gives you and your employer no protection at all. You may hold a councillor in low regard, but you cannot commit that to Facebook and not expect it to be used to question your impartiality.
However, even journalists are entitled to some personal time, even though they are always on duty. Out of hours, outside work and on compassionate leave ought to be considered personal, and not part of their professional conduct, unless specifically addressed to the complainant,which these postings were not.
This was a situation where neither complainant nor journalist covered themselves in glory, but it should have been a matter for the editor, not the PCC.