PCC upholds councillor’s harassment complaint

Councillor Jim Moher complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the Brent & Kilburn Times had harassed him in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).

The complaint was upheld.

The complainant raised concerns that he had been harassed by the newspaper’s news editor. On December 1, 2013, the complainant had emailed the news editor, who was responsible for editing the newspapers letters’ page, expressing his disappointment that she had not published several letters that he had written to the newspaper about a controversy over speed humps. He was then made aware by another councillor of comments that the news editor had made on Facebook that day about an individual she identified as a “failed wannabe MP”, including “I plan to make his life a misery as much as possible” and “Lord God forgive me if I bump into him before I get back to work, you will be visiting me in Holloway”. The first posting had been “liked” by 54 people and had attracted 43 comments. The complainant was concerned by the contents of the posts, which he described as “sheer venom” and “shocking”. While unnamed, he had been an unsuccessful Parliamentary candidate.

The newspaper denied breaching the Code. While conceding that the news editor’s behaviour was regrettable, it did not accept that it constituted intimidation or harassment; the comments had been made on her personal Facebook account, which had privacy settings in place ad could only be seen by “friends”. The news editor’s mother had recently passed away and she had been on compassionate leave when she received the complainant’s email, which read in part: ”here you are again this week giving extensive coverage to the most scurrilous and unfounded attacks”. The email concluded, “PS by the way it was me who sorted your permit problem”, a reference to assistance he had apparently provided to the news editor in acquiring parking permits for grieving relatives. She had found this email upsetting, and had expressed her feelings on Facebook. The newspaper confirmed that she had approximately 1,000 Facebook “friends”, although she had used settings to restrict the visibility of the post to around 250 “friends”.

Adjudication The Commission’s remit does not extend to editorial content published on social media sites. Nonetheless, the terms of Clause 4 apply to all professional conduct by journalists, including on social media sites. The complainant’s concerns about the postings on Facebook related directly to the news editor’s contact with the complainant in her professional role, and had been viewed by individuals she had come into contact with as part of that role, a number of whom were personally acquainted with the complainant. The complaint could therefore be framed as a complaint under Clause 4 of the Code, which states that “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit”.

The comments had contained abusive language, personal insults and an implied threat of violence – albeit not one which the Commission considered was not intended to be taken seriously. Further, they appeared to suggest that the news editor intended to use her professional role to make his “life a misery”. The newspaper had not denied that the complainant was readily identifiable as the subject of the remarks, which had been published to a wide audience. While the Commission acknowledged that the comments had been published at a difficult time for the news editor personally, it had no hesitation in finding that this constituted intimidation within the meaning of Clause 4, and a serious failure to uphold the highest professional standards required by the preamble to the code.

l Two further complaints from Cllr Moher about accuracy and the opportunity to reply were rejected by the PCC.