PCC: Use of police officer's Facebook comments about Ian Tomlinson's G20 death justified

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint that a former police officer’s privacy was breached when The People newspaper published a comment he posted to Facebook about the death of Ian Tomlinson during the London G20 protests.

Following Tomlinson’s death in April this year, John Hayter, then a serving officer with the royal protection unit, updated his Facebook account, saying: “My lot have murdered someone again. Shit happens.”

The People newspaper ran an article on 26 April using his comment as its headline after which the Metropolitan Police said it would not tolerate employees making ‘inappropriate comments via the internet’and Hayter resigned his post.

Hayter’s mother-in-law Phyllis Goble filed a complaint filed with the press watchdog, with his signed authorisation, claiming that publication of the comment, along with two others from Mr Hayter’s profiles on social networking sites, amounted to an invasion of privacy as his Facebook and Friends Reunited profiles were not publicly accessible.

Publishing its adjudication today, the PCC said it agreed with the paper’s argument that publication was reasonable because there was a public interest in showing how serving police officers regarded incidents such as the death of Ian Tomlinson.

The PCC said the newspaper’s attention had been drawn to the comments by a third party with legitimate access to those profiles.

In addition, Hayter had accepted the newspaper’s journalist as an online “friend” for a period of around an hour, before deleting her.

The PCC said: “The individual in question was a serving police officer, commenting on a matter that was the subject of considerable media and public scrutiny.

“He had done so in a way that made light of a person’s death and the role apparently played by the police. There was a clear public interest in knowing about police attitudes (whether publicly or privately expressed) towards the incident.

“In any case, posting such controversial comments to people who were not obliged to keep the information secret was likely to involve an element of risk on Mr Hayter’s part, given his job.

“The commission considered that any intrusion into privacy was justified by the public interest.”

The PCC also rejected Goble’ claim that publication of two photos of Hayter taken from social networking sites similarly invaded his privacy.

Further complaints that the article gave a misleading impression of Hayter’s character and that the material from the social networking sites had been obtained by subterfuge were also rejected by the PCC.

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