YOUTHFUL idealism, a touch of arrogance and a common sense deficiency are a dangerous enough combination by themselves. Combined with social media we have the glycerin to go with the nitro. And so it proved for one budding journalist on work experience at Deadline News last week.
Before I wade, ankle-deep through the smoking, quivering, shredded entrails of this sorry tale, a preliminary matter. Apart from yours truly, we’ll skip (real) names. One of the key purposes of this postmortem examination is not to embarrass or take revenge; it is humbly to remind readers of what was once taken for granted: there remains a place for privacy, trust and discretion. Social media is not only lifting the lid on our lives, it’s kicking open the doors, ripping down the curtains and dumping everything we hold dear on the street for everyone to see.
In many – even most – ways this is a good thing, provided you take great care. But it is OK sometimes not to share, tag, like or blog. And when it comes to the inner workings of the workplace, evidence is mounting that we’d be better off just getting on with work.
Back to the congealing viscera of my (hopefully) salutary tale. The work experience person, to be known henceforth by the epicene moniker Frankie, was asked by a media customer of Deadline’s to help work on a story about a celebrity experiencing difficulties in their personal life.
Frankie did this perfectly competently and without raising any objections, ethical or otherwise – at least while at work.
No, Frankie waited until later that evening to deal with the ethical objections. These were raised in the form of a public blog, which identified the media organisation and, with a stunning combination of naiveté, hubris and ignorance, took it to task for general moral beastliness. Frankie urged fellow young journalists to find better, more pure, things to do with their time. I meanwhile, was described as “salivating” at the prospect of the mountains of cash to be made as a middle man from all this misery.
Having delivered this strident verdict, young Frankie went to bed and was shortly sleeping the sleep of the righteous. I know this because – having been tipped off about the blog by an incredulous colleague – I woke Frankie up with a phone call shortly after 11pm. To borrow from the euphemistic discourse of the diplomatic world, there followed a frank exchange of views which occasionally bordered on the robust. Frankie explained that “honesty and integrity” were very important in their life. But not important enough, I asked, to let me know you were about to let off the career equivalent of an explosive vest? It seems that Frankie was going to roll in to the office the next morning and wait for us unsuspectingly to provide more blog material. Frankie, it seems, was utterly relaxed about stitching us up if it meant Frankie’s toddler version of the truth was out there. It hadn’t even dawned on Frankie that the blog was basically a big warning notice to prospective employers saying: “Do not, under any circumstances, employ me.”
At one stage in our exchange, Frankie threw in a bit of complacency for good measure. “They probably won’t even see it,” said Frankie, referring to Deadline’s valued customer and the target of the offending blog. Approximately 10 hours later, at about 9.20 the following morning, I got a call from a senior member of staff at the exact same media organisation in question. The caller had seen the blog (as if there was ever any doubt about that) but was, thankfully, sympathetic. It is possible they were too shocked by the recklessness of the blogger to be offended by the content. A colleague shortly afterwards took one look at the blog and declared: “Wow! That’s their career f*****”.
The blog was still online at 10am. It could only be assumed that Frankie was either slumbering or awake and defiant. I decided I had no choice but to make a formal complaint to Frankie’s university. About two hours later a call came through from the institution. “We’re mortified,” said the caller. “I’ve called and said to take the blog down.”
To summarise, Frankie had a rude awakening, literally in the form of a deep sleep suddenly disturbed, and metaphorically in the form of a work experience placement cancelled halfway through and possible disciplinary action by university staff. And for what? All that remains online of the blog that caused this meltdown is, appropriately enough, an error message.
There is, however, no intention on my part to gloat. Frankie made a very serious error. But, from what we saw, Frankie was a hard-working and able young journalist. Thankfully, Frankie’s tutors stepped in decisively to stop permanent harm.
We all make mistakes, particularly when young, and we should be given the chance to learn from them. What this case demonstrates, and the key reason for writing this blog, is that the generation who have never known anything but the internet and social media are in particular peril of not getting that chance. Their online mistakes – which they may fail to see as such – are rapidly publicised to friend and stranger alike. And unless dealt with quickly, a near-permanent record of that blunder can be left online for all – including potential employers – to see. A single tweet, Facebook picture or blog post can be like pulling the pin on a hand grenade.