U.K. Commission Rules Journalists Can Report on Tweets

Civil Servant Said Twitter Feed Complaining About Job and Government Should Be Private

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LONDON (AdAge.com) -- Brands and celebrities are getting used to negotiating the potential hazards of a Twitter account, but anonymous middle-level managers don't expect their personal tweets to land them in the media spotlight. Maybe they should, now that the U.K.'s Press Complaints Commission this week upheld the right of the press to report on Twitter updates.

It never occurred to Sarah Baskerville, a London-based U.K. government employee with the lengthy job title of team leader in corporate finance systems and reporting solutions at the Department of Transport, that anyone beyond her 700 followers would be reading her tweets.

Sarah Baskerville's Twitter page
Sarah Baskerville's Twitter page

So Ms. Baskerville freely issued updates describing the teacher of a course she was taking as "shouty" and "mental," and tweeted with abandon about "struggling with a wine-induced hangover" and how, after lunch, she was "tired -- would much rather be going home."

She also made some of her political views known, asking, "How much more can we take from this Government?" regarding plans for McDonald's Corp. and PepsiCo to help write health policy. And she complained about cutbacks. Both her Twitter account and her blog include clear disclaimers that the views expressed were personal opinions and were not representative of her employer.

Nothing there to distinguish her from many British workers, but because she is a government employee whose wages are paid by the British taxpayer, the U.K.'s Daily Mail tabloid decided in November 2010 that it was justified in re-printing her tweets under the headline "Oh please stop this twit from tweeting, someone."

The article prompted Ms. Baskerville to lodge the first grievance of its kind with the Press Complaints Commission. She claimed that her privacy had been violated and that the article was misleading because it didn't print the full context of her quotes -- for example, leaving out tweets that described the course she'd attended as "good and worthwhile."

She took her case to the Press Complaints Commission -- an independent body that administers the system of self-regulation for the press -- but this week the commission refused to uphold her complaints.

The commission said in a statement: "The civil service code requires that public servants should not, by their personal statements, call into doubt the impartiality of the civil service. It was quite legitimate for the newspaper to highlight this particular case."

This was the first time the commission had considered a complaint about the re-publication of information originating from Twitter. Ms. Baskerville insisted as part of her complaint that her comments were strictly for her 700 followers, but the commission ruled that "the potential audience for the information was actually much larger than the 700 people who followed the complainant directly, not least because any message could easily be retweeted."

Since the press coverage, Ms. Baskerville -- who tweets as @Baskers and describes herself as a "Scottish & Sober-ish" civil servant next to a photo of herself holding a glass of beer -- has added another 1,000 followers to her Twitter account, but has now deleted all her tweets. She has not posted on her blog since early December.

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