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10 cops face sanction over allegedly dodgy private messages. Don’t public servants have a right to privacy anymore?

Guy Birchall
Guy Birchall

Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall

Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall

10 cops face sanction over allegedly dodgy private messages. Don’t public servants have a right to privacy anymore?
Police chiefs in Scotland have launched disciplinary action against officers who engaged in WhatsApp chats which were racist, sexist & homophobic. But do such comments prevent them from doing their job?

An interesting conundrum over privacy has arisen in Scotland. It appears members of the Caledonian filth have been sharing, well, filth with each other on private WhatsApp groups. The messages, we are told, are racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and mocking of the disabled, which is pretty much a hate speech full house of protected characteristics. More troublingly, they also apparently contained photos from crime scenes. 

The messages came to light during an investigation into an allegation of misconduct against another officer. The ten officers, who were members of the imaginatively titled groups ‘Quality Polis’ and ‘PC Piggies’, argued that they had a right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights as well as under common law. However, judges disagreed saying that “the onus on those officers to uphold the force’s rules and protect the public overrode their right to privacy.”

 All of which leads to the question, do public servants have a right to private views and conversation? Is it fair that because you agree to uphold the law that your personal conversations can be used against you at work?

These comments weren’t made via official communications like police email. They were not posted publicly on Twitter or Facebook. They were sent in private, encrypted, WhatsApp groups not designed for public consumption. They are conversations and “jokes” shared between friends. Apart from the pictures of crime scenes, which no doubt should not be distributed in this fashion, do these officers deserve sanction for making off-colour banter in private? 

Shouldn’t it be the case that if the officers are to be reprimanded, it should be for something they did “on the job”? Their employer, Police Scotland, argued that the content of the messages could interfere with their “ability to uphold their duties as police officers or give that impression to the public.” But that just creates another problem. Does it necessarily follow that because you laugh at a joke at the expense of a certain group of people that you would treat them differently when you encounter them professionally? 

On top of that, the question of “giving an impression to the public” is an interesting one, since the groups were private, how would the public be made aware of them? Except, er, when Police Scotland took this action.

Even now, we only know of the messages’ existence but not their actual content, as that hasn’t been released as part of the investigation. We also don’t know who the police officers are as their identities have been protected for legal reasons. So currently the situation the public is aware of is ten officers, who have not been identified, said some things that have not been made public, but which Police Scotland says were bad. 

Leaving aside the distributing of crime scene photos within the WhatsApp groups (a clear breach of proper conduct, in my view), whether jokes or statements are racist or sexist is often a very subjective thing, and the context matters greatly. It matters even more greatly if these comments were made in private, not in a professional capacity, and ignoring these facts sets a dangerous precedent. I would wager that most people are in WhatsApp groups where comments are made that one would rather their employer not know about. 

We then have the question of their employer, Police Scotland. It is an organisation, alongside the wider Scottish government, that is gaining something of a reputation for not respecting freedom of speech. It famously dragged YouTuber Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula) through the courts over a video of his dog giving a “Nazi salute.” The SNP-lead Scottish government are also in the process of pushing a heavily criticised hate crime bill into law that would criminalise the incredibly vague offence of “stirring up hatred.”While some will argue that they should be commended for holding their officers to the same standards as Joe Public, that is only a good thing if those standards themselves make sense. 

As it stands, we know very little about what was said, other than that some people view it as unacceptable, and we know very little about who said it, other than that they are Scottish police officers. Without more facts, it makes it very difficult to assess whether or not these messages do suggest that the cops in question are bigoted, or just enjoy bad taste jokes. 

It also opens up the important question of are public servants entitled to a private life? Should they not be allowed to relax and let their guard down when they are “off duty”? We don’t expect accountants to behave like accountants when they aren’t accounting, so is it fair that we expect police to behave like police when they aren’t policing? 

I would suggest not. Policing can be a very dangerous job and, in these circumstances, it is not unusual for people to develop what might be termed a “dark” sense of humour. It serves as a coping mechanism to deal with the rigours of the job. On top of this, given the often antisocial hours and nature of their jobs, it is likely that many of their colleagues would also become their close friends, and close friendship groups, where people feel safe and unjudged, are the places where “near the knuckle” jokes are often made.

As has been said, without knowing the content of the messages nor the identity of the officers, it is hard for the wider public to come to a judgement on how fair any disciplinary action would be. But as a general principle, should we not allow police officers to have unguarded moments and the chance for a laugh? If they are to face sanction, should it not be over something they did in the line of duty, rather than late at night on a WhatsApp group? I would submit that people charged with protecting the public are just as deserving of privacy as the rest of us. We do, after all, expect them to put themselves in danger to protect us; the least we can do in return is to let them speak freely in private.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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