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PCC upholds councillor’s harassment complaint against weekly

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint from a councillor who accused his local paper of harassment after its news editor posted ‘abusive’ comments about him on Facebook.

Councillor Jim Moher issued a complaint against the Brent and Kilburn Times under Clause Four of the Editor’s Code of Practice, which covers harassment.

The paper’s news editor had been on bereavement leave when she received an email from the complainant, expressing disappointment that the newspaper had not published a number of his recent letters to the editor.

The news editor regarded this as inappropriate and expressed her views in several posts on her Facebook page, including one that said: “I plan to make his life a misery as much as possible.”

The complainant described the posts – which had been “liked” by 54 people, and had attracted 43 comments by other users – as “sheer venom” and “shocking.”

The newspaper argued that the incident did not constitute intimidation or harassment as the comments had been made on her own personal Facebook account, and could only be seen by a limited number of her friends.

However the Commission ruled that the comments had contained abusive language, personal insults, and an implied threat of violence – albeit not one that was intended to be taken seriously.

It also noted that the news editor’s Facebook privacy settings had made the comments visible to almost 250 Facebook friends.

While acknowledging that the comments had been published at a difficult time for the news editor personally, the Commission 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.

Separate complaints under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) were not upheld.

Charlotte Dewar, Director of Complaints and Pre-publication Services at the PCC, said: “This ruling by the Commission demonstrates that the terms of Clause 4 apply to all professional conduct by journalists, and that there is not always a clear line between the personal and professional.

“Journalists must take care when discussing their professional relationships, including on social media.”