Press regulator Impress has cleared Skwawkbox of privacy and harassment breaches after Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson complained that the left-leaning news blog published his office mobile number.
The article, published on 11 March and headlined: “Watson’s party within party form should NOT be used to let him know what you think,” centered on a form Watson sent to Labour MPs encouraging them to sign up to the centrist group Future Britain.
Skwawkbox originally published an image of the form with the West Bromwich East MP’s phone number on display, but later redacted the number before deleting the article altogether on 12 March 2019, according to an Impress ruling published today.
Watson asked Skwawkbox for an apology before taking up his complaint with Impress, arguing that publication of the mobile number counted as a breach of harassment and privacy clauses in the Impress standards code when coupled with a “language and tone” that “encouraged readers to pursue him with unsolicited calls and messages”.
He said this led to the owner of the office mobile being “being inundated with calls and abusive messages” that made Watson feel he was being harassed.
The number was called “approximately 30 times” and “received several text messages” between the evening of 11 March and the following morning.
The Skwawkbox article told readers not to contact the numbers on the form, though Watson argued this was “cloaked in irony and sarcasm”.
He added that he understood the form with the number may have already been available on social media.
Skwawkbox said the language in its article was “perfectly straightforward” in telling readers not to contact the mobile and did not accept that there was evidence calls and texts were made as a result of its article.
It also noted that the image with the unredacted number was replaced just under two hours after publication.
The Impress ruling said: “Furthermore, the publisher does not accept that printing the article amounted to intimidatory behaviour. It asserts that members of the public are entitled to contact their representatives, and therefore reasonably, Labour members should be entitled to contact the party’s deputy leader to express their views.”
Skwawkbox went on to argue that the number was no longer private as it had been circulated on social media, adding that Watson’s stature meant he did not have “a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained in the form”.
In its ruling on the case, the Impress Regulatory Committee said it “did not agree with the view that the language used was straightforward”, adding that an ordinary reasonable reader would have understood that the purpose of the article was to encourage readers to contact the complainant”.
But it did not find that Skwawkbox breached accuracy rules, saying: “By merely encouraging readers to contact the complainant, the Committee did not consider the publisher went so far as to encourage readers to abuse, threaten or intimidate the complainant.”
Addressing the privacy complaint, Impress said the office mobile number could be regarded as a public facing contact point by the ordinary reasonable person.
The Committee said Skwawkbox did not breach the Impress code, but said the regulator “does not approve of the fact that the Skwawkbox used the opportunity of the receipt of the complaint to seek to make separate, argumentative, points to the complainant in his political capacity in the first and last sentence of its response”.
Picture: Reuters/Toby Melville