Last week’s Press Complaints Commission ruling against the Brent and Kilburn Times appears to stray into new territory and poses some serious concerns for journalists.
First, the background.
A councillor emailed the paper’s news editor while she was on bereavement leave after her mother’s death. He complained that his letters hadn’t been published (which councillor doesn’t during election campaigns?).
The news editor then wrote on her personal Facebook page that she intended to make the councillor’s life “a misery” and ‘Lord God forgive me if I bump into him before I get back to work, you will be visiting me in Holloway".
The councillor complained to the PCC about harassment and intimidation. He described the posts as "sheer venom" and "shocking".
The newspaper denied breaching the code, but lost. Which amazes me. Why?
Firstly, the councillor originally intruded into the journalist’s private life by emailing her about business matters, despite knowing about her bereavement.
His comments were upsetting and mildly aggressive. So you could argue he should have left her alone in the first place. And her comments were not addressed to him, or any of his colleagues.
But more importantly, what right did the PCC have to adjudicate on the content of a journalist’s personal social media account – which had the settings on Friends Only?
The ruling clearly shows that journalists’ social media accounts can now be subject to PCC scrutiny if someone complains.
But where does the PCC intend to draw the line between public and private?
The PCC’s remit is to … "deal with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines (and their websites)". I don’t see journalists’ personal Facebook pages anywhere in that statement.
The code also says: "All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional standards".
But does that apply to journalists’ personal and private online activities? Can’t a reporter moan to her friends: "The boss was a pain today", or that "I just interviewed the MP. What a jerk"?
And what about the many reporters who use their own Twitter accounts for work. Are they not protected by the disclaimer "All views mine?"
This ruling appears to set a worrying precedent. The PCC now needs to justify this apparent extension of its remit.
And it must do better than complaints director Charlotte Dewar’s, statement that: "… there is not always a clear line between the personal and professional. Journalists must take care when discussing professional relationships, including on social media."