When hacks get sacked for blogging

Freelance journalist Nick Clayton got the boot last week for blogging. His firing has attracted a lot of media attention and he’s written up his experience on his own blog. Read and learn what a storm in a teacup it is – not for him but for The Scotsman.

No doubt Nick will be keeping the world posted as to what happens next, now that he’s consulting the NUJ. His sacking raises many questions about the freedom of journalists to write where, how, as and when they choose. Within the blogosphere, several high profile bloggers have lost their jobs, Petite Anglaise being one famous example. But these are people who were staffers blogging about their jobs anonymously. And who unwittingly transgressed unwritten company codes about the boundaries between work and private life.

Nick is a freelance journalist – self-employment should mean it’s entirely up to him to blog about what he likes, when he likes. Newspapers have embraced blogging, some more than others, but pretty much all of them recognise the important medium it has become. Most papers have blogs written by their staff. Very few seem to have any kind of policy on what their staff may blog about (judging purely on all the chatter doing the rounds on the net in the past few days), or even whether such policies apply to freelances under contract.

What’s puzzling in Nick’s case is why he was fired. He didn’t attack The Scotsman. He was only commenting on something the paper had already reported. The Scotsman is not doing itself any favours right now. It’s not taking calls about Nick’s firing from the NUJ or the media who want to hear the paper’s side of the story. And it’s made itself look rather petty. Which it has been.

What happens to Nick next may well determine how the landscape lies for other freelance journalists who blog, even those of us living from pitch to pitch rather than on a contract or two. It would be awful to think that a freelance fashion writer, say, was refused further commissions for blogging that a company’s latest range was poor, because the mag she writes for takes advertising from that company. Where does it end? Will it mean all freelances will have to sign some kind of disclaimer determining what they may blog about?

I suspect very many of us will be watching developments very closely.

I hope Nick is reinstated. And I hope we will all continue to enjoy the freedom to blog as we choose without fear of losing work as a result.

5 thoughts on “When hacks get sacked for blogging”

  1. I don’t know.

    I’m not excusing the paper’s actions or saying I agree with them, but I do think when you blog it’s easy to forget that your comments can have consequences. Anyone looking for “nick clayton” + “scotsman” may well come across the blog post – which hardly looks great for the scotsman, does it?

    I like Nick’s writing and have a lot of respect for him as a journalist, but I think he missed a trick. To write a blog post saying, “I had a recent experience where I was almost universally advised not to advertise in X,” when X is one of your employers is potentially bringing that company into disrepute – so why would they employ you? Surely Nick could have made a general observation without naming his employer?

    I feel for him, I really do, but I’m not sure I can completely condemn the paper, either.

  2. I hear what you’re saying but I don’t think he was bringing The Scotsman into disrepute. He didn’t slag them off. He was only commenting on the shift of classifieds from print to web, a story that The Scotsman had already covered itself. I find it really difficult to see how that’s disrepute.

    The Scotsman is the only serious Scottish broadsheet, and thus the only paper that’s had a monopoly on newspaper classifieds until the web revolution. Nick naming the Daily Record, for example, would not have had nearly the same significance in general terms for paper classifieds. I think even if he’d made a general observation, to those in Scotland at least it would have been obvious he was referring to The Scotsman.

    I agree it’s very easy to forget essentials when blogging, which is why I’m generally carefully on one of my other blogs if I go on the offensive, but I really don’t think that applies in Nick’s case.

    Disclaimer: I lived in Edinburgh for 8 years so know The Scotsman fairly well(but have never written for it) and also know Nick personally.

  3. Nick Clayton

    Thanks for a really well thought-out piece. It puts the row into context.

    I should say first that I had no intention of attacking The Scotsman or provoking its management. Neither do I think as a freelance you can act with impunity when commenting on outlets that pay for your contributions. I still feel that what I wrote was pretty innocuous.

    The context is important. I was writing for allmediascotland, a fairly specialist site with readers who would be fairly knowledgeable about the financial difficulties of the Scottish newspaper industry. I’d have gone into more detail for a less well-informed readership.

    The key point is the Scotland’s papers are far more regional than England’s. The middle class of Edinburgh reads The Scotsman, in Glasgow it’s The Herald, in Aberdeen the Press & Journal and Dundee The Courier. Traditionally they advertised their property accordingly.

    Competition for these local monopolies has appeared. In Edinburgh, for instance, 82% of homes are now sold through the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre (ESPC). So, except for really fancy houses, that’s where Edinburgh’s buyers and sellers go. The Scotsman and its sister publications, the Evening News and Scotland on Sunday have been losing out for years.

    To show how long it’s been going on, there has been a Monopolies Commission examination of the ESPC. I remember it well because I wrote the story of its announcement for The Scotsman. It was, however, overshadowed by the Dunblane massacre which took place on the same day.

    I only mention this to show how unnewsworthy the reference was in my blog. I’m sure nobody would have batted an eyelid if The Scotsman management hadn’t behaved the way it did. Certainly nobody commented on that part of the blog in the eight hours or so that it was up before I was fired. And there were other comments.

    Even in retrospect I probably wouldn’t changed what I said. I might have given a little more context, perhaps pointing out how many months I’d have had to write columns for in order to pay for a couple of insertions.

  4. I am not a journalist nor do I work in the media field. I am a lapsed academic who now works freelance but still in academic circles.

    I am very cautious on my blog not to mention anything directly connected to my work (and it would be so easy to use material as much of it is contentious and interesting) because I think that is crossing the line. So I go out of my way NOT to mention anything, even when others might, just because I think it would abuse my position and more seriously, threaten my livelihood and reputation.

    I think a lot of people who read my blog do know what I do and what I work on but it is never openly discussed on my blog.

    I can see that for journalists the line is more blurry – because writing is your trade but I think it must be possible to identify a line and stick to it. And certainly mentioning your employer on your blog – whether what you say is good, bad or indifferent – is probably a very bad idea.

  5. I agree that for most bloggers who blog about work, the line should be easy to draw. Paramedic Tom Reynolds (of Blood, Sweat and Tea) cleared his blogging with his NHS employers. Others such as Petite Anglaise found themselves in a very grey area legally. I think in Nick’s case the line was very clear – he only namechecked his employer in a general context to illustrate a particular situation which that employer had already reported on. That’s why it seems so harsh to have fired him.

    I was a staff copy-editor for a while with a bank abroad and had to sign all manner of confidentiality agreements because of insider trading laws. For me, in that situation, the boundary was very clear – I made the decision from the start never to discuss the details of my work. In other words, I was happy to say “I’m a copy-editor for ING” but not to discuss any of the companies being reported on by the equity analysts, as I was privy to information before publication. Now, as a freelance, things are less clear-cut. I still edit for banks and I’m open about who my clients are (in a sense I need to be as saying “I edit for X” could be a passport to being offered editing work by Y), but I still don’t discuss the details. I use another blog to let off steam about work but am very careful not to identify any clients.

    I would say to any blogger writing about anything related to work it’s probably a good idea to bone up on basic media law. It’s easy to defame someone on a blog (or a forum) unwittingly. The same laws apply to the internet as they do to print or other media.

    Journalists already have media law knowledge and that should help steer us through tricky waters. Looking through McNae’s (our media law bible) I don’t see that Nick broke any rules.

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