The newspaper boss and the Twitter witchhunt

By Mic Wright on July 27th, 2012

I’m not a regional newspaper observer, so the name Steve Auckland meant nothing to me until earlier this week, when I first read about a legal challenge to a minor Twitter parody account. Now, the name Steve Auckland is synonymous with wild and self-sabotaging overreaction in my mind. It may even be time to add the Auckland Strategy as an adjunct to the well-known Streisand Effect.

Steve Auckland is the chief executive of Northcliffe, Daily Mail & General Trust’s regional newspaper division. @UnSteveDorkland is a Twitter parody that, before DGMT began legal challenges in the US in an attempt to persuade the social network to reveal the account’s owner, had just 150 followers. At the time of writing, it has 1,428 and counting.

Twitter has been hit with a legal order in California as Northcliffe Media tries to smoke out the person behind @UnSteveDorkland. The company, which you might expect would be spending all its time focused on enlivening the moribund regional newspaper business, is spending significant resources to pursue this spoof.

Previously, the Daily Mail has attacked such moves, particularly in the case of legal challenges to Twitter accounts surrounding the “Premiership footballers with injunctions” scandals. But now one of their own is under the satirical microscope, things have changed.

Twitter has told the account holder late last week that it will be obliged to hand over the email address, IP address and any other identifying information tied to the account to Northcliffe by 1 August unless the request is challenged. The social network’s legal department advised @UnSteveDorkland to contact the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union for assistance and obtain US counsel.

As a result of the case being highlighted by a friend of The Kernel, Guido Fawkes, the individual behind the @UnSteveDorkland account received an offer of pro bono assistance from a lawyer in California. They are now actively fighting the demand from Northcliffe that Twitter hand over personal details.

In a blog post, the person behind the parody explained that their motivation was to rib Auckland after hearing various stories about the executive’s management style, including offering a cup with his face on it as an incentive in an office competition. The author of @UnSteveDorkland claims their tweets were “an attempt to a) find some humour in the somewhat bleak way many people felt they were being led and b) yes, prick the great man’s ego just a tad”. He also says:

“[The account] clearly struck a chord with many and the messages I received were supportive and, most importantly, amused, at the content. David Simms, the publisher at Northcliffe’s Leicester centre, was obviously sufficiently relaxed at my gentle ribbing of him via Mr Dorkland that he saw fit to retweet a number of my outpourings. On one occasion, a Tweeter in the name of Karen Wall, head of talent at Northcliffe and one of Mr Auckland’s top team, favourited one of my tweets.”

Sources at DMGT say that Northcliffe fully intends to pursue the legal action and that tweets from the account are considered to be “offensive and motivated by undisclosed grievances”. Auckland himself has described the account as “obsessive and offensive” and claims the firm has taken action to “protect our staff from harassment”.

While it is not possible for The Kernel to ascertain whether tweets have been deleted from the @UnSteveDorkland account, those tweets that we have been able to read seem innocuous, though understandably designed to irritate the Northcliffe boss.

Whatever the straw that broke the camel’s back was, the decision by Northcliffe to pursue legal measures against a Twitter account with such a small number of followers was foolhardy. Rather than ignoring the messages and allowing @UnSteveDorkland to fade out over time, Auckland has gifted the anonymous tweeter with tremendous publicity and exposed Auckland to public ridicule.

This case is obviously a very minor media dust up, but there are issues here for anyone seeking to engage in parody, topical comedy or political activism online, whether via Twitter or some other network. The attempted unmasking of @UnSteveDorkland is not the first and will not be the last move by corporations to use their financial clout and legal muscle to crush critics. It is a trend that must be challenged.

Clearer heads at DMGT should explain to Auckland that his personal battles should not be fought on company time and with company cash. Censorship is never a good strategy when you’re in the media business, and, in the internet era, the consequences are likely to be embarrassing and unpredictable.