Why councils must ban the Daily Mail
(Cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy)
"Town hall bans staff from using Facebook after they each waste 572 hours in ONE month," proclaimed a recent Daily Mail headline. This was an astonishing revelation: Portsmouth City Council workers were so addicted to the social networking website that they had broken the space-time continuum – compressing 19 hours of surfing into each working day.
Alas, the reality was more mundane. 572 hours was in fact the total usage for all 4,500 of Portsmouth's employees. Individual use was a less physics-defying seven minutes a month – or 14 seconds a day. And that was during the peak month; average daily use was 11 seconds. The Daily Mail subsequently amended its headline, though not before receiving a good deal of ridicule in its readers' comments. (The original headline still appears at the TaxPayers' Alliance website, whose prolific cut-and-pasting shows a cavalier disregard for such pillars of capitalism as intellectual property rights.)
But 11 seconds a day was still enough for Portsmouth bosses to ban Facebook - even though they conceded they could not say whether the offending surfing had occurred outside of lunch breaks. Those 11 seconds also prompted an agonisingly long Daily Mail polemic from Dragon's Den judge Theo Paphitis (now there's a man who would benefit from the 140-character discipline of Twitter), while the TaxPayers' Alliance's Mark Wallace said: "Even if everybody spends even a small amount of time on the site it is still paid for by the taxpayer. It is a huge amount of work time, and therefore money, being wasted."
Some commentators – Paul Evans and Mark Pack among them – reckoned this line of reasoning was as suspect as the Daily Mail's maths, but Wallace was having none of it. He told Mark Pack: "It’s easy to divide and divide a number until it seems insignificant (re your 11 seconds figure) but if you look at the actual cost this is the equivalent of two full time staff doing nothing all month! That’s clearly wasteful – even if the time wasted is paid on minimum wage that’s over £28,000 a year, which is quite a few people’s council tax."
But why stop there? Why not ban sneezing at work – or blinking? Those lost moments all add up.
Meanwhile, sensing the opportunity for a scandal in their own backyard, the sleuths at Peterborough Evening Telegraph used a Freedom of Information request to reveal the top 10 websites visited by Peterborough council staff during July.
Facebook scraped in – at bottom position – but the council defended its use, stating: “There are a range of legitimate reasons for staff to be accessing the internet during the working day. For example we are currently using Facebook and Bebo for our Safer Peterborough work to engage with a wider range of local people.” Staff had also been encouraged to back a Facebook campaign to bring the Radio 1 Big Weekend show to Peterborough.
But more shocking was the Daily Mail's appearance as seventh most visited site. What justification could there be for accessing articles such as "Kerry Katona replaces brown birthday puppy after deciding she didn't like its colour" and "Daddy's little girl: Suri Cruise falls asleep in her father's arms after an exhausting day on set" during working hours?
How many other council employees visit the Daily Mail website at taxpayers' expense? We don't know, but this is exactly the kind of thing that the Freedom of Information Act was established to expose, so we are currently making FoI requests to local authorities around Britain. In the meantime, just as Portsmouth didn't wait to establish whether workers had used Facebook outside of lunch breaks, we urge all councils to adopt the precautionary principle and banish the Daily Mail from their workplaces.
• Update: John Wood suggests a much more sensible approach to Facebook.
Posted by Other TPA at 12:23pm on 24 September 2009
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