One of Insider's columnists, Steve Brauner, has written of his experiences of the world of blog. I was going to do a preamble to the tale, but Steve tells it pretty well from the top.
What do your employees get up to in cyberspace? Are you aware Miss Jones in accounts advertises herself on a social networking site as a bisexual paganist with a penchant for partner swapping and painful piercings?
Being a broad minded sort, you’d probably respond that while people kept things like that to themselves when you were a lad – worse luck – what she does in her private time is up to her.
Yes, but what about that young salesman who can get a bit lippy? Have you seen his Myspace blog? The one where he slags off all your customers. Still think social networking websites are something you don’t need to add to the long list of ball-aching things to worry about?
Ask the chief executive of Thorntons. The chocolate shop chain has just learned a very hard lesson courtesy of one of its junior managers.
Drafted over from Newcastle to Barrow-in-Furness, Steve Beall didn’t take to his new location. Trapped in a Travelodge on the outskirts of town, he told the world, via his Myspace blog, that Barrow-in-Furness was “a shithole” and queried how anyone could possibly live there.
Mr Beall, or Stevo to his Myspace friends, posted this on a page open to public access. Therefore anyone with a “Barrow-in-Furness” Google alert was sent an email directing them to his words of unwisdom.
One of those people was myself, editor of the North-West Evening Mail, read by more than 75 per cent of the adult population of Barrow-in-Furness. Do our readers have a right to know that the manager of a new store who smiles and takes their money by day is slagging them off to all the world by night? Yes, obviously they do.
So Mr Beall’s indiscretions appeared on our front page and some of our readers felt the need to speak to him. Thorntons’ staff felt threatened, police had to be called. Mr Beall was despatched back to Newcastle and the company’s chief executive issued a grovelling apology.
What followed was 15 minutes of infamy. Not just for Mr Beall but for me as well. On the blogosphere I was accused of suppressing free speech, invading privacy and putting a lonely young man at risk of losing his job just before Christmas.
Before you get the violins out, Mr Beall was not sacked, just reprimanded.
Even so, here are the views of one blogger, a PR man called Stephen Newton: “If anybody should be sacked over this affair it’s the editor Steve Brauner, who thought Steve Beall’s MySpace page was news.”
Did this flash of insight come to Mr Newton after his Apple iMac fell on his head? Does he think the scores of newspapers, websites, TV and radio stations who followed up the story were all stricken with the same lapse of editorial judgement? He needs to realise that cyberspace is not a sim world where it doesn’t matter what you do or say. Free speech comes with responsibility and consequences, on Myspace or anywhere else.