The UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has upheld a complaint regarding the use by newspapers of material that has been uploaded by members of the public on social networking sites. The PCC adjudication against the Scottish Sunday Express (22 June 2009) demonstrates the Commission’s position on the circumstances regarding the acceptable publication of information taken from such websites.

THE ARTICLE

The article, headlined “Anniversary Shame of Dunblane Survivors”, reported that the survivors of the Dunblane shooting in 1996 had “shamed” the memory of the deceased with “foul-mouthed boasts about sex, brawls and drink-fuelled antics” posted on their social networking sites.

THE COMPLAINT

The Complainants, parents of the Dunblane survivors, said that the coverage had seriously affected their sons by criticising them and unnecessarily drawing attention to them as Dunblane survivors, including by publishing photographs of them when they had been shielded previously from public view. They stated that the article constituted a serious intrusion into their private lives.

RESPONSE

The Scottish Sunday Express argued that the information had been publicly accessible on social networking sites and the identities of the individuals were well known, as they had been named at the time of the shooting. Nonetheless, it did recognise that the tone of the coverage was ill-judged and unjustified and published a lengthy apology.

DECISION

The Commission said that it can be acceptable in some circumstances for the press to publish information taken from social networking sites. It stressed, however, that this is normally when the individuals concerned have come to public attention as a result of their own actions, or are otherwise relevant to an incident currently in the news when they may expect to be the subject of some media scrutiny.

In this case, the Commission stated that, while the boys’ identities appeared to have been made public in 1996, they had since been brought up away from the media spotlight. The Commission noted that they were not public figures in any meaningful sense and that the newsworthy event that they had been involved in had happened 13 years previously.

The Commission noted that even if the images were available freely online, the way they were used, when there was no particular reason for the boys to be in the news, represented a fundamental failure to respect their private lives. As such, the Commission concluded that publication was in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. It added that although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.

COMMENT

As far as the Commission was concerned, the publication in the Scottish Sunday Express represented a serious error of judgement. For editors to avoid such damning censure from the PCC, it is essential that they recognise that strict privacy rules extend to publishing material uploaded by members of the public on social networking sites.