Here come the (thought) police

A COUPLE of jurors have been in the news this week, one for speaking his mind in court, one for speaking his mind on Facebook.

One is now facing a contempt charge after he allegedly committed his thoughts on being chosen to try a man charged with sexual offences against a child to his Facebook page. He may be regretting being quite so frank in allegedly saying he “wanted to fuck up a paedophile.”

The other was a juror on a sexual offence trial in Tyneside, but his problem was not the nature of the offence, it was the origins of the offender – a Mackem (native of Sunderland) whose home team had just given the Geordie juror’s team, Newcastle United a 3-0 drubbing in the local derby. The juror was, he confessed, incapable of trying the man fairly and was discharged.

Cue outrage on Twitter at his confession, especially as the delay to the trial meant the victim had to go through evidence again.

Would we rather both had remained silent? Of course it would be preferable that all jurors arrived at trial capable of setting aside prejudice and trying the case solely on the evidence.

But if they are not capable of doing so, isn’t it better to know that?

The Toon fan made his feelings known in court, so avoided anything more than the disapproval of the court, and a vocal few on Twitter and elsewhere. The Facebooking juror is facing somewhat more serious consequences.

This raises a wider point about the way in which offensive behaviour on social media is being policed and reported by the media and it follows on from the post I wrote below, about Paris Brown.

At the moment publication on social media is being treated by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts as just that, a form of publication, which it undoubtedly is. I would argue that it is more than that, it is fundamentally different to that.

Publication has for centuries now, involved many tiers of eyes examining an article, book or broadcast before it reached the general public. The exception being, perhaps, live TV, but even there a time delay and a watchful eye meant the public were usually spared anything too offensive.

In my own experience, any piece of writing I perpetrated had to get past a newsdesk, sub editor, chief sub editor, night editor and stone sub before it reached the paper and I, like many reporters before me, am grateful for their eternal vigilance.

Now, however the means of publication, or in the case of the retweet, re-publication, has been out in the hands of everyone. Anyone can distribute their thoughts to the multitude, in subbed, as fresh as the moment they had them. Much of it is wonderful, some of it mundane and plenty of it actionable in law.

And the instantaneous nature of social media publication, I would argue, differentiates it for any form of publishing we have seen before. If you watch a young person going at their iPhone, you realise just how slow your own thumbs are and how quickly they can commit their thoughts to the ether. And this is my fundamental point, this is less like publication and more like thought. Many users of social media, especially Twitter, are simply thinking out loud, very loud.

Of course, one might argue, it is their own fault, they know the power of the retweet, they ought know their digital thoughts become permanent and searchable for all to discover. But the vilification of the likes of Paris Brown and the juror who didn’t like paedos simply tells people to keep their thoughts to themselves. It does not address the fact that they have those thoughts in the first place.

This is what social media is showing us, that there is an ugly side to people’s nature and before they would only express it to family, close friends and those who shared their views, now they are committing it to the Internet.

And is this what we want? I think yes, I would rather know what a juror thought about me, so he could be discharged, than him keep it a secret and find me guilty.

When Orwell wrote 1984 he envisaged cameras in every home spying on our every action. This is so much more than that, we don’t need the cameras, we have Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and more where people voluntarily sign up not only to record their actions but also their very thoughts.

The thought police are here, but they weren’t sent in by Big Brother, they are us.

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The rise, and rapid demise, of Paris Brown

A WEEK is a long time in politics and even longer in the life of a youth police and crime commissioner.

The fledgling career of Paris Brown, 17 who had won the £15k post was stopped before it even started after tweets she posted when 14 to 16 were uncovered by the Mail on Sunday.

They had found posts in which she had used the racist and homophobic terms ‘pikey’ and ‘fag’.

After an initial show of support from the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes, by yesterday it was clear things had gone too far when Kent Police announced they we investigating some of the posts on Twitter. Paris Brown announced in a press conference that she would not be taking up the post of youth commissioner.

So, was the MoS right to reveal the tweets of a teenager, and did she need to go? Well, probably yes to both questions. Here’s why.

In the normal course of things the tweets that she sent, for which she has now apologised, are not really a matter of public interest. While using those terms is always unacceptable, she was not targeting an individual in making them – she said, for instance, that the cast of Made In Chelsea all ‘looked like fags’. Unpleasant, certainly, but qualitatively different from applying that word to a individual gay person in a tweet directed at them.

So ordinarily one would say that this is probably not something that ought to concern a national newspaper and were the Daily Mail to do page leads on the offensive postings of teenagers, they would need to run a special supplement every day and a very large one at that. But they don’t, the Mail, despite views to the contrary expressed by its detractors on Twitter, and there are many, is not interested in the ill-considered tweets of the nation’s youth.

Paris Brown is only 17, and, as I tweeted yesterday, I would hate to be reminded of some of the deeply stupid things I probably said when I was that age. Pity the poor teenager today whose every tweet and Facebook post is potentially immortal, a digital albatross circling them for the rest of their life. They ought to be able to live down their indiscretions, offensive as they may be, just as those of us who grew up pre-Internet were able to do.

Many people Paris’s age use social media in the same way they would just talking in the pub – it is as full of the trite, offensive, deeply meaningful, nonsensical, emotional, heartfelt and daft as such conversations always have been. but now they are broadcast to the world, are permanent and searchable. To them a post on Facebook or Twitter is as simple and quick as thought, but they are thinking out loud, very loud.

So was the press in general and the MoS in particular, right to cover this in the way they did? This is where the public interest comes into play. Paris Brown was soon to be employed on the public purse, albeit that some of her salary would come from Ann Barnes’ own, it was still taxpayers’ money that would be funding her post. She would be responsible for engaging with people her age as part of that role. So her right to privacy has to be balanced against the public’s right to know what a public servant in this position actually thinks.

Given the fact that a youth commissioner charged with communicating with young people is inevitably going to do that by using social media, it is not unreasonable to ask what views she has expressed on those media.

It is a question that those employing her should perhaps have asked before announcing her appointment. To be fair to Ann Barnes, Ms Brown was put through Kent Police’s normal vetting process for the level of role she was taking up. That vetting process did not include looking at her postings on social media. One would imagine that that vetting process is being rapidly revised in light of recent events.

If they did not think of looking at Paris Brown’s tweets, it was blindingly obvious that any journalist worth his or her salt would do. It is what journalists do. Gay people in Kent and those from ethnic minority groups have a right to know what any public servant holding such a position thinks about them and the language they use gives you a clue.

In the end she did the right thing, which was inevitable once police were investigating, and declined the post. I suspect the police will shortly announce no further action, because if they take this to court, then they need to start building some new ones to cope with the influx of those who have posted similar and worse. She can, as she hopes, move on, and any social media consultants in Kent would do well to sign her up to provide true-life lessons to schools, colleges and universities on the perils of the intemperate post.

Paris Brown said yesterday she hoped this would stand as a lesson to young people. That is very true. Some surveys have shown that more than half of prospective employers look at potential employees social media postings, and 40 per cent of them don’t make a job offer as a result of what they find. You cast a long social media shadow, and along lasting one at that.

Ann Barnes said yesterday, referring to Leveson, that it was the role of the press to break news, but not to break people. Very true, and Paris Brown ought not to be broken by this now she has turned down her new post. But organisations cannot have it all ways, if you want your staff to engage on social media you have to accept the risks as well as the benefits that brings. You cannot control the every thought and tweet of your staff.

We are just beginning to understand the revolution in communication that social media has brought about. Paris Brown is a casualty of that revolution.

There will be many more.