Every so often, despite many years’ service in the Employment law trenches dealing with the less attractive end of human nature, a case comes along which still has the capacity to surprise. Sometimes it is in the outcome, but more usually in that anyone felt it worth bringing in the first place.
Enter Sarah Baskerville, junior civil servant at the UK Department of Transport and regular Twitter user. Tweets posted by the self-styled “Baskers” included references to being hungover at work, criticisms of a DoT trainer as “mental” and a variety of arguably political comment, the last strictly prohibited by the terms of her employment as civil servant.
These were picked up and published by the Daily Mail under the not hugely sympathetic headline “Stop this twit from tweeting”, and the Independent the next day under “The Hounding of Baskerville” (oh, the benefits of a classical education). Both pieces were claimed by Ms Baskerville to be an intrusion into her privacy in breach of the UK Press Editors Code of Practice. In proceedings in front of the Press Complaints Commission, it became clear that in addition to her use of Twitter, the publicity-shy Ms Baskerville also had a blog and a personal website, and had uploaded pictures of herself on Flickr.
While she conceded that this was all open to anyone, Ms Baskerville contended at the same time that she had “a reasonable expectation that [her] messages …. would be published only to [her] followers”, of whom there were some 700. Unsurprisingly, the PCC threw out both her complaints – despite the immense triviality and tedium of much of it, anyone pumping out their “random thoughts, musings, opinions” onto the Internet had to be seen as accepting the risk that someone would read it. Gosh, really?
But what of the Department of Transport in all this? Ms Baskerville’s Linked-In page (yes, there too) indicates that it is still her employer, but it could have been a close-run thing. The Department would have been entitled beyond argument to act on her posts had it chosen to do so. References on an employee’s Twitter or website page to “Nothing to do with my employers” and “These are not the views of my employers” would surely be of little significance if that employee’s postings were variously in breach of its rules, abusive of colleagues or indicative of his working under the influence of alcohol.
Against that, Ms Baskerville’s Twitter following has now shot up to nearly 1,800 – perhaps there is no such thing as bad publicity after all.