Facebook, Dunblane and a 2 page apology from the Express – a lesson in online journalism ethics

2 weeks ago the Scottish Sunday Express led with this cover story (PDF) on how the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were turning 18 and – shock, horror – drinking and making rude gestures. Reporter Paula Murray, it seemed, had “managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles.” You can read it in full here (text) and also here (PDF). The original was quickly taken down.

So far, so middle market. But what happened next was an abject lesson for the Express – and Paula – in how things have changed for journalists who will do anything for a ‘story’.

Of course, “the blogosphere erupted” as some newspapers reported (as if this was some fringe). That included comedy writer Graham Linehan, who wrote a wonderful post urging readers to take action:

“Clearly aware of the legal guidelines in place to protect those under eighteen against invasion of privacy (and the specific instructions that the Press Complaints Commission issued regarding the Dunblane children), she waited until they hit eighteen. Then she wrote this.”

His suggested actions included writing to the editorial director and publisher, joining a Facebook protest group and signing an online petition.

At the time of writing his post has had 173 comments, the Facebook protest group has over 6,800 members and the petition has had over 10,000 signatories.

Meanwhile there was extensive discussion on forums, Twitter, and more blogs.

Bloggerheads – who you may remember from their campaign against Daily Mail journalist Julie Moulthighlighted at length Paula Murray’s double standards in her own use of social media, including many images culled from her Facebook profile and Twitter account:


“In her attack on Dunblane survivors, Paula Murray castigated and demonised survivors of that tragedy who “boasted about alcoholic binges”, which is EXACTLY what she’s doing here.”

It also managed to find that the quote from an MP apparently condemning the teenagers’ behaviour were taken out of context.

And it supplied a list of Express advertisers to target.

Meanwhile, The Press Complaints Commission received over 30 complaints (60 according to Press Gazette) including 2 from those mentioned in the article.

The Express’ apology, for its size, is described by The Guardian as “strongly-worded”.


It’s largely self-congratulatory: “It is 81 years since the first edition of this great newspaper rolled off the presses in Glasgow,” is the first line. The last is: “The Scottish Sunday Express is a big newspaper, with a long and illustrious history. We are also big enough to say we are truly sorry.”

Big enough to say sorry, but not big enough to allow people to comment on the apology. The door is closed. Talk to the hand.

Big enough to say sorry, but not big enough to realise that the balance of power has shifted. Your readers are your distributors. Piss them off, and you have a distribution problem. 

Big enough to say sorry, but not big enough to learn from Liverpool’s boycott of The Sun, or the mistakes made in reporting the Virginia Tech tragedy.

If I was a senior staffer on the Scottish Sunday Express I’d see this as a distribution opportunity. I would open comments on the apology and respond to them myself. I might even give Paula Murray some quick training in online communication and point out that she would do well to engage herself.

I would use the apology to link to the Facebook group and online petition to show that we were aware of them. I would also visit that Facebook group and apologise there.

I would visit as many forums and blogs as I can and apologise again.

And I would follow up and address responses to my apology that raise reasonable points I can respond to.

I would not entrust this to a PR company or marketing department, or to a junior member of staff. Because this is about distribution – and you wouldn’t entrust a negotiation with TNT to a PR person would you?

Start learning. Start talking.


19 thoughts on “Facebook, Dunblane and a 2 page apology from the Express – a lesson in online journalism ethics

  1. Tim Ireland

    Very well put.

    My only criticism would be that you failed to mention the vague legal threats of editor Derek Lambie, who probably wasn’t expecting to be called on that or anything else.

  2. The Worst of Perth

    “At the time of writing his post has had 173 comments, the Facebook protest group has over 6,800 members and the petition has had over 10,000 signatories.”

    Those numbers seem surprisingly small to me, including the press council complaints. 173 comments? Would have been far bigger numbers for someone caught kicking a dog on video.

    I don’t think those numbers would discourage the paper from trying something similarly obnoxious. Targeting the advertisiers directly though sounds more effective.

  3. Alice Fanning

    Judginf from a brief look at the Express website, none of their stories are open for comment. They don’t seem very interested in engaging with their readers at all.

  4. Steve Jackson

    Excellent post and I agree entirely – and I thought the Guardian summing it up as a “strong-worded” apology was, as you said: “bullshit”.

    I wrote an article on this, and other related matters at the weekend:


    But one of the questions is – if this is now so huge and it’s all over the internet and it’s even got a whole load of celebriting endorsements – then why are traditional media almost entirely ignoring it?

    Because it’s the US against THEM thing. Papers for all their lip service to blogs really do hate bloggers.

    News, to them, is made by newspapers – it may feature the lives of the man and woman on the street but largely as victims – not as on the ones who are literally making the news.

    And surprisingly considering their relatively impressive online reputation – the Guardian is one of the worst.

  5. Joseph Hughes

    Thank you for writing this – you have put some valuable order to my angry thoughts about the Express and the people working there.

  6. paulbradshaw

    Thanks, Perth – I know Linehan pulled back from targeting advertisers; it was Bloggerheads who I mentioned had the list of advertisers.
    Tim, any detail on those legal threats?

  7. The Worst of Perth

    I realise that, but I was just interested that Linehan pulled back from promoting the only lever likely to do anything. Shaming or press complaints comission are not going to do anything are they? Online petitions don’t work. Not at 10 000, probably not even at 100 000. There’s no discipline of the journo. A mealy mouthed apology. Only one thing will puncture rhino hides like that. Money leaving the building.

  8. Pingback: Dog sniffs dog, gently « Paperhouse

  9. Pingback: ThePickards » Blog Archive » The Express, Apologies, Dunblane and a Bloodthirsty Mob

  10. Pingback: links for 2009-03-25 « Embololalia

  11. Mark

    @The Worst of Perth: The reasons the numbers are so small is that almost none of the ‘old’ media have picked up on the story. It would appear that they’ve closed ranks. Which is sad.

  12. Pingback: www.education.edu/education « Scene And Not Herd

  13. David Williams

    That really was a low act. Not only had those survivors gone through such an ordeal earlier in their life, but to then have their privacy breached by some snoopy journalist willing to do anything for a story! At least now with the power of feedback through the internet people can express their rage at things like this through blogs and facebook groups, etc.

  14. Pingback: Simple guide to maintaining your reputation online : Kasper Sørensen

  15. videovideolar

    @The Worst of Perth: The reasons the numbers are so small is that almost none of the ‘old’ media have picked up on the story. It would appear that they’ve closed ranks. Which is sad.

  16. Pingback: Sources fight back: fabrication, complaints, and the Daily Mail | Online Journalism Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.