UK press watchdog seeks to regulate journalists on Twitter

With moves such as Facebook’s addition of its new Journalism portal, “Journalists on Facebook”, the importance of social networking and social media sites to journalism is something that is practically taken for granted. Though Facebook may be trying to muscle in on the journalist social network user demographic, the true power base for journalism when it comes to social networks is Twitter, and the United Kingdom’s press watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has taken note.

The PCC announced recently that it plans to strengthen its influence by including the Twitter feeds of reporters and newspapers.

This means tweets from these accounts would have to be written within the guidelines as set out by journalism watchdogs in the “Editor’s Code of Practice”. The ground upon which they are basing this move is that some postings on Twitter arguably constitute “newspaper editorial product” and that, should the same content appear in a newspapers’ print or online editions, this would be regulated by them.

What this means in effect is that, just as with content from the print or online editions of newspapers, members of the public would be able to lay complaints over what newspapers and journalists are tweeting.

Much of the response from journalists has been that this would at the very least be unfair, and at the worst constitute an invasion of their privacy. These opinions are based on the grounds that, as is often stated in their Twitter bios or believed it to be implicitly understood, their Twitter accounts are personal, and as such they tweet in their personal capacity.

However, as media and entertainment industry legal professional, Iain Connor said when questioned by UK newspaper, The Telegraph, this is a weak defence. He added, “I think given the interest [in most journalists’ Twitter feeds] is likely to arise because of their journalist profession, it would be difficult to argue that they are genuinely tweeting in a personal capacity and that’s probably the reason why the PCC is considering this extension to its remit.”

The PCC has however considered such objections and says that they plan to differentiate between personal and private Twitter accounts. Accounts that use the newspapers name, for example @guardiannews, the UK newspaper’s official feed would fall clearly fall under this widened ambit of the PCC. Furthermore, an official account such as that ofBBC tech correspondent’s Rory Cellan-Jones, @BBCRoryCJ, would also be under this widened remit. His ‘private’ — though not locked account — @ruskin147 however would probably not be.

But not all — and most cases in fact — would be so clear-cut.

For instance, what of accounts which neither specify they are private or public, such as that of the Guardian’s deputy editor, Ian Katz? That same question could be asked of accounts such as Cellan-Jones’ private account on the grounds that it does tweet content — his opinions on matters which he covers — that could be included on the papers site and in the paper’s print edition and thus fall under the ambit of the PCC.

When asked to comment, South Africa’s equivalent body, The Press Council of South Africa through it’s Deputy Ombudsman, Johan Retief, said via email: “Our mandate presently does not extend to the internet. However, the Press Council is currently busy with an investigation into how we can improve our system. One of the recommendations to the Council is that our mandate should be extended to online material that is published by publications that are affiliated to our system.”

Ferial Haffajee, editor-in-chief of South African newspaper the City Press, in a tweet regarding this move by the PCC described it as “disturbing”. However, in an interview with Memeburn last year, Nic Dawes, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, when asked on the opinion many hold that tweets are “just thoughts, or off-the-record,” replied that “Twitter is definitively on the record”.

This divergence of views by these two leaders in journalism does not necessarily reflect a difference of opinion.

It does prove something however: When it comes to Twitter, which has become an integral part of the craft of journalism the Fourth Estate needs to get its house in order. In these still fairly early days of social networking’s impact on journalism, this move by the Press Complaints Commission, and any such other moves by other regulatory bodies across the globe, is part of that process.



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