Remembering the Dunblane social media smears

The children of Dunblane were being watched. The predator knew their names, their faces, and their personalities. They knew who the children’s friends were, where they played together, and what they got up to. They knew where the children were, and when. That knowledge helped them plan the assault: they knew which children would put up a fight and which ones could be picked off easily. The children played on, oblivious. When the time was right, the predator loaded their weapon and fired.

It wasn’t 1996, the scene wasn’t a primary school, and the predator wasn’t a gunman. It was 2009, the scene was social media, and the predator was a tabloid newspaper.

"Dunblane Shame" Scottish Sunday Express Articles

On 8 March 2009 the Scottish Sunday Express ran a front page smear story against the children who had survived the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. The sources of the smears were the children’s own Bebo social networking profiles, which were being secretly monitored by a Sunday Express journalist. She knew who to look for because the children’s names had been reported in the media in 1996, and were included in the published enquiry into the shooting which is available in any large Scottish public library. She looked up the right children, monitored their posts, and spun them into a “SCOTTISH EXCLUSIVE” which ran in advance of the 13th anniversary of the shooting.

Why the 13th? Because the children were 5 when they were shot. 13 + 5 = 18. At 18, they were adults, and were fair game to be taken down a second time.

The story laid out the paper’s case for why they felt these little shits had it coming:

A number of the youngsters, now 18, have posted shocking blogs and photographs of themselves on the Internet, 13 years after being sheltered from public view in the aftermath. For instance, [redacted] – who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died – makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out. Others boast about discovering sex.

Really. That’s it. “Shocking.”

You see: proper 18 year olds never get drunk, have sex, or make rude gestures, especially 18 year olds who are apparently supposed to be hiding in their toddler bedrooms, untouched since the morning of the incident, rocking back and forth crying into their teddy bears. By growing up, implied the Sunday Express, these children had betrayed their dead friends and the public.

How dare they.

"Dunblane Shame" Scottish Sunday Express Articles

As distressing as the smears were, what was equally heartbreaking was the fact that the story marked the first time any of the survivors had been subjected to uninvited media publicity since 1996. Up until then, in a remarkable unwritten agreement between the media and the people of Dunblane, the children had been granted the liberty and grace to return home, get on with their lives, and come of age in complete privacy and anonymity.

It worked. It worked so well that they grew up to be normal, daft, pain in the arse teenagers, just like we all were.

Oh, but the predator couldn’t stand that. These kids had to be taken down as a matter of public interest. Children who survived being shot when they were barely out of nappies were subjected to an attempted character assassination the moment they turned legal.

What the predator didn’t expect was the public reaction. Within hours of the incident the blogosphere – which is what we called things before social sharing buttons – erupted in rightful anger. Writers such as Graham Linehan and Tim Ireland spurred on public outrage which led to a public petition, dozens of complaints to the then-media watchdog (the Press Complaints Commission), and threats to boycott businesses who placed ads in the paper.

The public then beat the paper at their own game: they looked up the people involved in the smears on the internet. It was easy to find the journalist’s own social media pages, where she herself was shown to be constantly drinking and partying, sometimes in the presence of children. You see, apparently it’s okay to cover your own social media accounts with pictures of you making rude gestures on drunken nights out, but it’s not okay when anyone else does it.

The newspaper’s editor, who approved the story, was also revealed to have been a student journalist at Stirling Uni on the day of the shooting – one who, at the time, published an impassioned plea for the children’s privacy.

Everything you do comes back to you.

As a result of the outcry the stories were taken offline, deleted, and never mentioned again. The Sunday Express eventually ran a chest-beating apology which was basically “suck my balls”, but the journalist kept her job, and remains on it to this day.

In July 2009 the Press Complaints Commission rejected the paper’s apology and issued its strongest rebuke ever:

In this case, while the boys’ identities appeared to have been made public in 1996, it was also the case – as the article itself had recognised – that they had since been brought up away from the media spotlight. The article conceded that ‘no photographs of any of the children have been seen in more than a decade’. They were not public figures in any meaningful sense, and the newsworthy event that they had been involved in as young children had happened 13 years previously. Since then they had done nothing to warrant media scrutiny, and the images appeared to have been taken out of context and presented in a way that was designed to humiliate or embarrass them…
Even if the images were available freely online, the way they were used – when there was no particular reason for the boys to be in the news – represented a fundamental failure to respect their private lives. Publication represented a serious error of judgement on the part of the newspaper. Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code [of journalistic practice] was so serious that no apology could remedy it.

In the earliest days of social media the Sunday Express learned a difficult but necessary lesson: just because it’s on social media doesn’t make it fair game. Just because someone was in the news before doesn’t mean they deserve to be in it tomorrow. And if you’re going to live in a glass house, you’d damn well better not be throwing stones.

An archive of much of the material pertaining to the incident is available here.

As the 20th anniversary approaches on Sunday, and the now-grown children are subjected to fresh media scrutiny, I would implore everyone to emulate the dignity of those who were actually there rather than the parasitical aggression of those who sought to use the incident for their own ends. It’s been said that “it is not grief that has defined the people of Dunblane, but their response to it.”

But what about your response?

After all, you could, right now, look up the survivors’ names, look up their social media accounts, and pry into their personal lives.

But you’re not going to do that, because you don’t have to. You really don’t. The children of Dunblane are not yours. They never were.

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.