UK PCC Rules Publication of Civil Servant's Public Tweets OK

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The PCC issued its first ruling about Twitter publication in the case of this tweeter. (Credit: Twitter)

The UK Press Complaints Commission backed two newspapers’ decisions to publish public tweets from a public Twitter account, reported.

The tweets were by Sarah Baskerville, a “civil servant” who works for the Department of Transport.  She claimed the newspapers violated her privacy.

Baskerville’s tweets were set to “public,” meaning anyone can view her posts.  In her bio section on Twitter, Baskerville writes: “Scottish & Sober-ish.. Civil Servant. This is my personal account, personal views. Nothing to do with my employers. What I retweet I may or may not agree with.”

However, the newspapers-  the Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday — “printed several of her tweets in which she discussed aspects of her job and made a number of comments of a political nature.” The newspapers reportedly defended their decision “in light of the requirements of the civil service code on impartiality.”

For example, The Daily Mail’s Nov. 13 story by Quentin Letts, “Oh please, stop the twit from Tweeting, someone,” called Baskerville “an incorrigible contributor to the internet.”  The story reads:

“A Whitehall official has been Tweeting about her drunkenness, boasting about how pointless she thinks some of her work is and how much she dislikes the Government’s deficit reduction.”

Letts went on to write,

“‘Stuggling with wine-induced hangover,’ she Tweeted from work one day. There have been frequent references to her over-imbibing.

“Another day, shortly before the Comprehensive Spending Review, she complained after lunch about feeling ‘rather tired — would much prefer going home’.

“If she only spent her office hours working rather than Tweeting, she would no doubt be even more exhausted.”

The Independent’s Matt Chorley’s Nov. 14 story, “the Hounding of Baskerville” likewise criticized Baskerville for her tweeting.

According to the PCC’s ruling, Baskerville stated as a result of the article “she had taken the decision – reluctantly – to lock her Twitter stream so it could not be viewed by anybody apart from her followers” — roughly 700 people.

However, iMediaEthics noted Feb. 8 that Baskerville’s account is set to public, and that she has around 1,800 followers now.  By Feb. 11, Baskerville’s Twitter was still set to public, but it appears she deleted all of her past tweets save three recent posts.

The ruling was the first time the PCC “considered a complaint about the republication of information originating from Twitter.”

The Media Blog weighed in on the ruling, commenting that while Baskerville’s tweets weren’t private, they weren’t newsworthy either. “They were hardly jaw-dropping revelations,” the Media Blog wrote.  “In fact they were pretty safe and considered in the grand scheme of much of the chatter on Twitter.”

The Media Blog continued: “What is clear from this case is that while Twitter may be public and therefore anything said should of course be considered ‘on the record’, that doesn’t mean it’s always newsworthy or in the public interest (even once the Mail has distorted comments to make them sound far more interesting or inflammatory than they really are).

StinkyJournalism wrote to Baskerville for comment.  She responded that “Unfortunately I can’t provide you with any further comment regarding this case, but I would urge you to contact my Union,” and provided us with the contact information for Richard Simcox.

StinkyJournalism then wrote to Simcox, the national press officer for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union asking more information about the case.

Simcox explained that he “dealt with the media fallout at the time and PCS represented Sarah when the department she works for – the Department for Transport – launched an investigation.”

“The wholly unpleasant attack on Sarah by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, followed up by the Independent on Sunday, was completely unjustified and betrayed a worrying lack of understanding of how government works, as well as a very poor grasp of new forms of media.

“Thankfully for Sarah – unlike Mr Letts, his employer or the Independent – the Department for Transport took a mature approach, recognised Sarah’s contribution to the department and the civil service, and found there was no case to answer.”

We asked Simcox for more background on the investigation into Baskerville’s tweets.  He explained the Dept. for Transport “wanted to know if Sarah had broken any civil service rules.”

According to Simcox, “in the UK, civil servants (government staff, non-political) are required to carry out their jobs in a non-political way and they shouldn’t do anything which could be interpreted as representing the views of their civil service employer (the government department) or them as a civil servant. They are entitled to freedom of expression as a private citizen, though.”

“The crux” of Baskerville’s complaint with the Daily Mail article was that her tweets were “taken wildly out of context and presented as if they were being expressed as a civil servant and not as an ordinary person with opinions and feelings of her own.”

But, according to Simcox, “anyone who took more than a cursory glance at Sarah’s digital media output – particularly her blog – would see that she is a dedicated civil servant who cares passionately about her work and her colleagues, wants to make government work better, and has spent her own time attending government conferences to help share her experiences and learn from others. As these inconvenient facts rather undermined Mr Letts’s ‘thesis’, of course they were ‘overlooked’ by him.”

Simcox explained that Baskerville was “cleared” of any violations of civil servant policy after “some weeks and several meetings.”

StinkyJournalism wrote to the PCC for comment and for response to the criticism that the Daily Mail and Independent stories took weren’t newsworthy and that Baskerville’s tweets out-of-context.  The PCC’s Jonathan Collett responded “On the issue of context, the PCC came specifically to a judgement as to whether the use of the tweets was misleading.”

Collett cited the ruling, which said:

“The Commission did not consider either that the article was misleading or distorted. It was accepted that the complainant had made the comments attributed to her. While the newspaper could have included more innocuous tweets, its failure to do so did not render the article misleading. The article constituted an argument by the journalist – with which some people clearly would disagree – that the actions of the complainant were inappropriate. Readers would recognise that he was using selected tweets to reinforce that argument. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) raised by this complaint.

“The issue of newsworthiness (as the blog notes) is not really a regulatory matter.  The PCC must confine itself to whether the published material was inaccurate or intrusive (and so a breach of the Code we enforce).  It would be inappropriate for the PCC to make a ruling based on whether the story as a whole was newsworthy or not.”

iMEdiaEthics also wrote to the Daily Mail for comment and response to the criticism of its story.  Tal Gottesman, deputy managing editor of the Daily Mail’s website, MailOnline, responded to our inquiry:  “Please find below links to the PCC adjudication and guidance note on this issue. The Daily Mail has no further comment to make on this matter, but thank you for contacting us.”  Gottesman included two links from the PCC’s website here and here.

iMediaEthics wrote the Independent for comment and will update with any response.


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UK PCC Rules Publication of Civil Servant’s Public Tweets OK

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