PCC: Civil servant's Twitter messages were not private

The Press Complaints Commission has made its first ruling on the republication of Twitter messages by UK newspapers by clearing the Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday of breaching privacy guidelines.

The press watchdog’s ruling came after Sarah Baskerville, a civil servant working at the Department for Transport, complained about republication of her tweets in the two papers last year.

Baskerville’s messages were published by the Independent on Sunday on 14 November under the headline “The hounding of Baskerville” and the previous day in the Daily Mail under the headline “Oh please, stop this twit from Tweeting, someone”.

The Daily Mail article referred to tweet’s from Baskerville in which she described the leader of a course she was doing (as part of her job) as “mental”; said that she was “struggling with a wine-induced hangover” at work; and, again at work, told how she was “feeling rather tired – would much prefer going home”.

The article also pointed to a number of tweets that were political in nature: a complaining reference to a Conservative MP who was a prominent critic of Whitehall waste; a re-tweet of a Labour MP’s attack on government “spin”; and a reference to the complainant’s acquaintance with Sally Bercow.

The Independent on Sunday article followed up the critical Mail story highlighting a number of tweets Baskerville had made and reported that she felt “targeted” by the criticism she had received.

The IoS article was accompanied by a photograph of Baskerville taken from her Flickr page and included comments from her blog.

Baskerville complained to the PCC that republication breached the “reasonable expectation” that her messages would be published only to her 700 or so followers.

Both newspapers argued that the complainant’s Twitter account was not private. The posts could be read by anyone and not just those individuals who actively chose to follow her.

Baskerville had taken no steps to restrict access to her messages, the papers said – although she did so after the Daily Mail article appeared – and was not publishing material anonymously.

In addition, the newspapers argued that it was reasonable to highlight the messages in light of the requirements of the civil service code on impartiality.

It was also reasonable for newspapers to give a view on whether it was acceptable for the complainant to have talked about such things as being hungover at work and to consider what this said about her judgement, the Mail and the IoS argued in their submission to the PCC.

The PCC said today the publicly accessible nature of the information was a “key consideration” in its ruling that the newspapers’ actions did not constitute “an unjustifiable intrusion” into the complainant’s privacy.

The PCC also noted that the messages published related directly to the complainant’s professional life as a public servant.

Stephen Abell, PCC director, said: “As more and more people make use of such social media to publish material related to their lives, the commission is increasingly being asked to make judgements about what can legitimately be described as private information.

‘In this case, the commission decided that republication of material by national newspapers, even though it was originally intended for a smaller audience, did not constitute a privacy intrusion.”

Additional complaints against both newspapers about alleged breaches of the accuracy guidelines of the editors’ code were also rejected.

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