To Tweet or not To Tweet…

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The Press Complaint Commission (PCC), the self-regulatory body competent to hear complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines (and their websites) in the UK, ruled for the first time that publicly accessible postings on Twitter and other social media are not private and that they can be (re)-published by newspapers.

In the cases Ms Sarah Baskerville v The Independent on Sunday and Ms Sarah Baskerville v Daily Mail, the PCC ruled against Ms Baskerville’s complaints and decided that the newspapers had the right to publish Ms Baskerville’s Tweets.

Sarah Baskerville is a civil servant working at the Department for Transport.  In November 2010, the Daily Mail and the Independent newspapers reported that Ms Baskerville had been using her Twitter account as well as Flickr and her own blog to describe aspects of her job, her feelings towards her work and her political opinions.  In particular Tweets Ms Baskerville referred to her having a hang-over whilst at work, and in another Tweet she described the speaker of a course she was attending as “mental” and expressed views of a political nature.

After the publication of the articles, Ms Baskerville filed two complaints with the PCC against the two newspapers, claiming that the articles (among other claims) intruded her privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice (Code).

Clause 3 of the Code states that:

i)                   Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii)                 Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

iii)               …

The complainant argued that her activities on Twitter and other social networking sites were private and could therefore not be republished.  Interestingly though, access to Ms Baskerville’s Twitter account was not restricted to her 700 followers but any member of the public could view the information she posted online.  To this respect, she argued that she had “a reasonable expectation that [her]messages… would be published only to [her]followers”, on the basis that people other than her followers “would only find her account by searching for her” specifically.  She also mentioned that her Tweets included disclaimers that “the views expressed were personal and were not representative of her employer”.

The PCC, in agreement with the newspapers’ position, decided instead that the defendants had not invaded Ms Baskerville’s privacy, on the basis of two main arguments:

  • The Tweets were open to the public view since the claimant’s account was not restricted to her followers.  In any case, even if her account had been restricted, the nature of Twitter would have allowed her followers to re-tweet her messages without the complainant’s consent or control, therefore the potential audience was way beyond the 700 followers.
  • Publishing that material was also excused on public interest grounds in accordance with the Editors’ Code of Practice, which allows the publication of material in order to detect or expose crime or serious impropriety.  Since the Civil Service Code provides that civil servants must not call into doubt the impartiality of the civil service, there was a legitimate interest of the public in knowing that Ms Baskerville had allegedly infringed the Civil Service Code.

Certainly, the determining factor for the PCC decision in this case was the public nature of the complainant’s role as a civil servant, but this ruling is a reminder that using social networks to express personal opinions can be risky.

Next time I’m hung-over at work, I won’t update my Facebook status.

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