Newspaper's use of Twitter posts was legitimate, rules watchdog

Out-Law News | 10 Feb 2011 | 12:31 pm | 2 min. read

A newspaper was within its rights to republish Twitter messages posted by a civil servant, newspaper self-regulatory body the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has ruled.

The PCC ruled that because the material published related to the woman's professional life there was a justification for its publication and the article did not invade her privacy.

Sarah Baskerville was a civil servant at the Department of Transport who posted tweets to her Twitter account that could be seen by anybody.

The article related the content of some of her messages, such as those describing the leader of a course she attended as "mental"; describing her coping with "a wine-induced hangover"; and referring to a Conservative MP who in opposition had been a critic of Government waste.

Baskerville said that her comments were private and should not have been distributed to more than her 700 followers. When the Daily Mail newspaper published them far more widely they violated her reasonable expectation of privacy, she told the PCC.

"[Baskerville] said her activities on Twitter and other social networking sites (she also had a blog and had uploaded pictures of herself on Flickr) were private," said the PCC ruling. "While it was true in theory that anybody could view the information she had posted online, she argued that she had a 'reasonable expectation that my messages...would be published only to my followers'."

"Only her 700 or so followers could see the full context of her messages. Others would only find her account by actively searching for her, which seemed an unlikely thing for most people to do, and would only see messages she had posted, not those she was responding to," it said. "Her Twitter account and her blog (neither of which were anonymous) both included clear disclaimers that the views expressed were personal opinions and were not representative of her employer."

The PCC is a membership body for newspapers which holds newspapers to account according to its code of practice. The chairman of the committee in charge of the Code is the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre.

The Daily Mail told the PCC that it had not invaded Baskerville's privacy because she had published the coments herself and made them available for anyone to read. They were part of a legitimate debate about the use of social media and civil service rules on impartiality, it said.

The PCC agreed with the Daily Mail that Baskerville could not expect public tweets to be treated as private information or their dissemination to be restricted to her own followers.

"There was no dispute that the material posted by the complainant was open to public view, and could be accessed by anyone who wished to read it," said its ruling. "Although there were 700 actual subscribers to the complainant's account, the potential audience was much greater. This was particularly the case as any message could be 're-tweeted' without the complainant's consent, or control, to a larger subscription list. This was a notable feature of Twitter. The publicly accessible nature of the information (for which the complainant was responsible) was a key consideration in the Commission's assessment as to whether it was private."

"The Commission noted that the published material related directly to the complainant's professional life as a public servant," said the ruling. "The newspaper was seeking to comment on the wisdom of civil servants using social media platforms, which may give rise to claims that it can conflict with their professional duties."

The Commission recognised that the complainant had been caused distress by the coverage of the newspaper, which was regrettable. However, taking into account all of the above factors, it did not consider that the material published by the newspaper constituted an unjustifiable intrusion into her privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code," it said.