02 March 2011

Is Facebook private? PCC director Stephen Abell gives his take

Stephen Abell

The difficulties journalists face when gathering information from social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were outlined in a special lecture at the University of Sheffield by Stephen “Stig” Abell, director of the Press Complaints Commission.

Mr Abell, delivering a guest lecture for the Department of Journalism Studies, said the way members of the public published private information using social media, presented a new set of problems for reporters.

He said the PCC took four things into consideration when judging if a story using information garnered from Facebook breached an individual’s right to privacy:

• What is the quality of the information and what is the context?
• Who uploaded the material?
• What privacy settings were used to protect the information?
• Is there a public interest in publication?

He used the example of a story published in the Scottish Sunday Express in 2009 which used comments posted on social networking sites by young people who had survived the Dunblane massacre.

The PCC censured the newspaper saying the story was a “serious intrusion” into the private lives of the people concerned who were sharing information between their friends.

Mr Abell explained that information could be published in very public fora and could still be considered private.

And he added: “If someone controls their privacy settings to restrict who can see the information you need a public interest argument in order to publish.”

He argued that Twitter was very different to Facebook, as it is a much more public medium and the action of “retweeting” can disseminate the information much more widely than the original intended audience.

He also highlighted how the reporting of suicides had changed in British newspapers over recent years directly because of PCC advice following concerns by such groups such as the Samaritans that “excessive detail” may help persuade vulnerable people to end their lives.

Mr Abell said the PCC receives about 7,000 complaints a year, although the majority fall by the wayside before an official investigation is launched.

In about 600 cases the issue was resolved through remedial action, such as a correction and or apology, to the satisfaction of the complainant.

In only about 20 cases per year was there an adjudication in which the editor was criticised.

He said the PCC also had a role in improving editorial standards and also helped bereaved families who did not want to be contacted by the press. IN addition it offered pre-publication advice both to editors and to the subjects of stories.