How private is a tweet?

The PCC has made its first rulings on a complaint over newspapers republishing a person’s tweets. The background to this is the publication in The Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday of tweets by civil servant Sarah Baskerville. Adrian Short sums up the stories pretty nicely: “We could be forgiven for thinking you’re trying to make the news rather than report it.”

The complaint came under the headings of privacy and accuracy. In a nutshell, the PCC have not upheld the complaints and, in the process, decided that a public Twitter account is not private. That seems fair enough. However, it is noted that “her Twitter account and her blog [which the Independent quoted from, along with her Flickr account] both included clear disclaimers that the views expressed were personal opinions and were not representative of her employer.”

The wider issue is of course about privacy as a whole, and about the relationship between our professional and private lives. The stories – as Adrian Short outlines so well – are strangely self-contained. ‘It is terrible that this civil servant has opinions and drinks occasionally, because someone like me might say that is it terrible…’

Next they’ll be saying that journalists have opinions and drink too…

9 thoughts on “How private is a tweet?

  1. Dominic Sayers

    Publishing a Twitter DM should be subject to the same laws as eavesdropping on phone calls or opening private mail. But a tweet or @reply is public, of course.

    How private is a tweet? Not private. Public. That’s kind of the point and the PCC, for once, is quite right, however juvenile and mean-spirited the original article.

    If this woman’s employers decided to stop her Twittering or disciplined her for doing so, that would be an interesting story. As far as I am aware they have not.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention How private is a tweet? | Online Journalism Blog --

  3. Andy C

    What worries me most is that an intelligent woman who is a civil servant and active on multiple social networks can’t fathom that a Tweet is in the public domain.

    If she truly wanted her inane microblogging drivel to be strictly limited to her hundreds of followers, she should create a private feed but I suspect she raised the 2 PCC complaints to somehow make a name for herself which has now backfired.

    1. Stuart Harrison

      I happen to know Baskers, and I know she bought the complaint because she felt victimised and bullied by Quentin Letts and others. OK, the complaint of privacy may not be extremely accurate, but when you’re dealing with the PCC, complaints have to be made against specific points, and, when you’re dealing with a bully, you’re going to use any methods available to you.

      1. Andy C

        Maybe and as I have now read the PCC guidelines, I conclude that, although she justifiably felt picked on and victimised and it was undoubtedly a ‘non story’, she had absolutely no grounds of success with her complaints so why bother ?

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    1. Paul Bradshaw

      Very interesting case, Scarlett – thanks. Without knowing the details of the situation, there is an obvious public interest case, but the content of the tweet itself doesn’t seem that important. The closest analogy would be someone overhearing the same conversation between two people during a meeting. But I guess context is key here.

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