Is MI6 Facebook story an invasion of privacy?

In Debate on July 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

The Mail on Sunday had a great scoop yesterday – the wife of the head of MI6 had posted family picture on Facebook which, said the Mail, made it possible to identify his family and his London address. It shows how far we’ve come from the days when the head of MI6 would be unnamed, presumably ‘in case the Russians found out’.

This might be really good public interest journalism. If the head of MI6 and his immediate family are indiscreet, the public should know and the relevant disciplinary action should be taken. Without a newspaper to commit the resources to finding out these issues, the story may never have been revealed.

Alternatively, it could be overblown hype, as the Foreign Secretary suggested to the BBC yesterday morning. Yes, the Mail on Sunday managed to find a Conservative MP to support its story, but opposition MPs usually do (of any party, on any issue). The Guardian editorial thinks it is overblown: “the revelations of Lady Shelley surely contain very little that those in search of such information could not find somewhere else in the course of an afternoon.” And it would surely be a matter of some surprise if foreign intelligence agencies were not already aware of his family and London address.

There have been many stories in the past that have come from social networking sites. Prince Harry may have been dumped via Facebook and may now be flirting with a Sky News presenter via the social networking site. If nothing else, these stories are a useful reminder to social networks of the need for a little self-regulation.

But is the Mail’s scoop an invasion of privacy? According to the Mail, his wife had “put virtually no restrictions on her account” but the page is now deleted so we can’t find out what restrictions there may have been. Is it reasonable to have an expectation of privacy for content on social networking sites?

According to research commissioned by the Press Complaints Commission 42% of web users aged 16-24 know someone who has been embarrassed by information uploaded on to the internet without their consent. And 78% of the entire adult online population would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media.

At the time, then chairman Sir Christopher Meyer said: “That is why I expect our current Code of Practice to be able to handle complaints in this area; and in the process to enable the Commission over the coming months and years to define through its decisions the boundary between the private and the public.”

Since then, the PCC has ruled on three cases regarding Facebook. Twice it did not uphold a complaint about a journalist contacting family members through a Facebook profile page. On one other occasion a newspaper apologised and made a charitable donation for reprinting condolences left by friends and a photograph on a Facebook profile page. So there is still little case law for the PCC to draw upon when investigating stories such as this.

If the story is not an invasion of privacy, justified on public interest grounds, then it is not a great piece of investigative journalism. But it is still better to have the issue out in the open. The alternative may be a world in which newspapers were not allowed to report such a story but it was common currency on internet messageboards.

UPDATE: the PCC has published a further adjudication about the use of material from Facebook. Essentially it says that if the person wasn ‘t in the public eye, or their actions have not brought them into the public eye, then they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of their privacy settings.

  1. […] of the PCC in relation to social networking is set out in its adjudication. This blog commented on Facebook and privacy challenges for the press earlier […]

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