A decision of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has blurred the lines between professions and personal when it comes to the use of social media.
A complaint by Councillor Jim Moher against the Brent & Kilburn Times was upheld by the PCC, which found the newspaper to be in breach of Clause 4 of its Code of Practice which states that journalists must not “engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit”. The newspaper’s news editor had made comments on her personal Facebook page about Mr Moher, whom she had referred to as a “failed wannabe MP” following an email he had sent querying her editorial decision not to publish his letters. The editor’s comments included, “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 [HMP] Holloway”. The comments had attracted in excess of 50 ‘likes’ and over 40 comments from the 1000 friends that the editor had on the social media site.
The complaint was brought against the newspaper and not the news editor personally. It argued that the comments did not constitute harassment or intimidation as they were made on a private and personal account with privacy settings in place. These settings restricted the number of potential viewers to 250 ‘friends’.
In its adjudication upholding the complaint, the PCC acknowledged that it’s powers did not extend to editorial content posted on social media sites, but that the Code did apply to all professional conduct by individual journalists, including that on social media sites. The PCC took a wide view of professional conduct, finding that a number of the editor’s friends were contacts she had made from being in her role and the postings were directly related to professional contact with Mr Moher.
The PCC did not believe that the editor’s threat of violence was intended to be taken seriously, but did find that the comments contained abusive language and personal insults. It also found that the editor had intended to use her position with the newspaper to make Mr Moher’s life “a misery”.
In summary, despite the time period in question had been personally difficult for the editor, whose mother had recently passed away, she was found to have acted in a way which contravened Clause 4 and was a serious failure to uphold the highest professional standards required by the Code.
The fact that the complaint and the finding were made against the newspaper and were solely in relation to comments posted on an employee’s private social media page with privacy restrictions in place shows how willing a court or other quasi-legal forum can be to find in favour of a complainant. The consequences of this decision for the editor could be significant, potentially terminal. For the newspaper, the door may now be open for a civil claim for which it may be vicariously liable.
Without doubt, this is a significant decision – not only for journalists, but for anyone who uses social media to engage with professional as well as personal contacts, especially those in a regulated or public facing position.