I’m not going to rehearse the sorry history of Sun on Sunday columnist and former Conservative MP who has spent the last two weeks attacking the 17 year old behind the #Milifandom phenomenon. The young student has had enough grief as it is, and Louise Mensch’s words speak for themselves.
I also ought to point out that – had a young Cameron supporter been trolled by a senior Labour commentator – I would also be calling this out (as many conscientious Conservatives have done in this case). It has gone beyond party politics to a much more important issue.
Indeed, Louise Mensch reminded me of this when, with perhaps unconscious projection, she accused Abby of outing the personal details of a Sun journalist who’d posted a business card when her family, including her 72 year old grandmother, was doorstepped during the election campaign.
Personal Privacy and Outing Anonymous Accounts
Mensch’s allegations arise from the brief moment when, back in early May, Abby posted a Sun journalist’s business card on Twitter to verify it was a real journo.
That this was a business card, with News UK mobile, posted through a letter box, which hardly makes this ‘doxxing’ in any real sense.
No personal information was sought. Business information was proffered. Turning this whole saga into a 17 year old’s privacy intrusion on a Sun journalist requires an irony klaxon beyond health and safety decibel limits.
But it raises a much bigger question about how the Sun newspaper obtained Abby’s real name and therefore her address and those of her relatives. Her real ID bears no relation to her Twitter handle. She did a radio interview, but still anonymously. One of the Sun journalists involved later explained to Abby how they came by her address.
But Abby is only 17, and it’s now been confirmed she was not on the electoral roll. Perhaps the Sun got her real name from the radio station, but that would be in breach of data protection. Perhaps, as they might claim, a friend ‘outed’ her and sold her ID to the paper. Of course, they can never reveal their sources…
“Turning this whole saga into a 17 year old’s privacy intrusion on a Sun journalist requires an irony klaxon beyond health and safety decibel limits.”
Unfortunately, having sat through a series of trials (many caused when News UK handed over the sources en masse to the Met to avoid prosecution in the US) this ‘sources tell us’ line has also often been used a smokescreen to hide illegal story gathering and the dark arts.
It happened extensively throughout the phone hacking trial over stories which are now proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, to have actually come from voice mail interception.
Over 20 public officials, mainly police and prison officers, have been found guilty of misconduct for tipping off the Sun personal details and salacious stories.
Given the Bribery Act has now made paying public officials for stories clearly illegal since it came into force in 2013, it’s very unlikely Abby’s identity would have been outed using these means.
“This ‘sources tell us’ line has also often been used a smokescreen to hide illegal story gathering and the dark arts.”
The Leveson Inquiry also revealed how a Times journalist had used computer hacking to out the identity of a brilliant anonymous police blogger, Nightjack, so that’s very unlikely too. (Though sometimes you’ve got to wonder whether some journos saw the Leveson Inquiry less as a warning than an instruction manual how not to get caught.)
Which leaves a variety of means of identifying an anonymous Twitter user from social engineering, blagging, false Facebook friending or other means.
None of these are illegal, but they could be deemed highly unethical, especially given Abby’s age.
Which brings me to the central problem.
Press Ethics and IPSO
Much press abuse causes civil not criminal harm, which is hard to litigate if you’re not rich. Even more is just unethical.
“Sometimes you’ve got to wonder whether some journos saw the Leveson Inquiry less as a warning than an instruction manual how not to get caught”
IPSO is the new self appointed press regulator set up by the big Fleet Street publishers. It is supposed to enforce an ethical Editor’s Code, and prevent unethical press intrusion.
Its predecessor, the PCC, was dissolved after the phone hacking scandal because of its abject failure to stop press abuses. Indeed, the PCC went out of its way to criticise Nick Davies and the Guardian in 2009 for exposing phone hacking.
It took the revelation that teenage murder victim had been hacked for the PCC to be exposed.
Will IPSO now make a stand and fully investigate the outing and potential harassment of a teenage political activist? Only we the public can hold them fully to account. Because no one else will.
This post originally appeared on the Byline and is reproduced with permission and thanks