THE most absurd stories should start at the end.
And so I begin my somewhat absurd story by attaching to this blog the notification of legal proceedings which Twitter sent me on July 12th, 2012.
It informed me that Northcliffe Media Ltd had used the Californian justice system to issue a subpoena urging Twitter to reveal the details behind three spoof Twitter accounts relating to the company’s chief executive Steve Auckland.
Let me just write that again: Northcliffe Media Ltd, the UK-based regional arm of the Daily Mail Group, had hired American lawyers to hunt down information on parody accounts spoofing the company’s CEO.
So, how did it come to this?
I have been a wry observer of Northcliffe for a number of years. I have seen local managers come and go and the men at the top do likewise. Some were good, some were bad, some were indifferent. Some thought they were a lot better than they actually were.
Just over a year ago Mr Auckland arrived at the top of Northcliffe, hotfoot from his much heralded success at Metro. Soon after, a number of his executive team from Metro crossed over to Northcliffe too.
It soon appeared that Mr Auckland would be somewhat different from his predecessors, both in style and substance.
There was something of the “professional Yorkshireman” in his attitude and his communication. Straight talking and straight answers were the name of the game and woe betide anyone seeking a more nuanced approach to management.
Messages spilled forth from on high about how life would now be and what needed to be done to turn Northcliffe around. Q&As were distributed in which Mr Auckland explained what his vision was for the company and how this would be executed. There was also a ‘joke’ in there about his resemblance to the actor George Clooney.
This became something of a theme in future missives.
In my mind, an idea started to take shape….
There were perhaps some inevitable and immediate departures among senior managers across the company. The message went out that some people would be uncomfortable with the pace of change and it was therefore only right and proper that they should leave.
There was, of course, no suggestion that it might be these managers querying the nature of the change or the way it was being executed which had led to their departure.
Encouraged, no doubt, to maximise profits by his masters at the Daily Mail Group, disinterested in Northcliffe as a future entity following the abandoned sell-off in 20068, Mr Auckland pressed on and did not spare the rod.
I remained in wry observer mode but I noted among many folks in Northcliffe a grim acceptance that life was now more about profit generation than it ever was. The fun and satisfaction of working for a Northcliffe business had gone, seemingly for good. When companies start to start to implement ways of building fun and boosting morale among their staff with incentives then one suspects the game is up. Some of the ‘initiatives’ around the Group made many wince at their crassness.
Then two things happened. Firstly, the incentive of winning The Auckland Cup was offered to all. A tea mug emblazoned with a picture of Mr Auckland sporting a ‘comedy’ Yorkshire flat cap, The Auckland Cup was trailed as the prize which would be awarded to the worker deemed to have made the best company contribution as judged by Mr A and his executive team.
I am sure this was all very ‘fun’ and ‘ironic’ but at a time when Northcliffe folk were leaving in their droves it seemed a little crass. Sure enough, I didn’t see anything other than resigned looks among people I knew. No clamour to win the cup.
In my mind, an idea started to take further shape….
Then I was given sight of a memo in which Mr Auckland announced a large bonus incentive for the best performing centre. Fair play on the incentive, but it was somewhat ruined by the news that the managing directors of the three worst performing centres over the period the bonus was judged would be summoned to Mr Auckland’s office in London to explain themselves. “Harsh but fair” was the verdict from the man himself. Aficionados of Glengarry Glen Ross will recognise the management style.
In my mind, an idea finally took off….
A man who was so confident, so brusque, so certain of his ground and so self-aware of his Yorkshireness, his successes and his opinions was surely a parody just waiting to happen.
I quietly started a Twitter account parodying the great man. Followers soon joined as word got around.
My 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.
Little did I know just how much I would succeed on both counts.
Firstly, a confession. I made a mistake first time around. New to Twitter and not sure of the ground rules, I named it directly after the man himself and so it started life as @Northcliffestev with a picture of him.
Another supportive follower suggested this was a bad move as it broke Twitter’s rules and I could be accused of attempting to directly impersonate Mr A.
This was true and so I came up with the clear parody name @SteveDorkland, attached a picture of Mr Clooney, and so began a series of tweets supposedly aping the great man’s thoughts and actions.
The Twitter account’s popularity grew and so did the followers (although I never had more than 150 at any one time until Northcliffe itself decided to fan the flames of publicity).
It clearly struck a chord with many and 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 re-tweet 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.
Clearly, people were having fun with the parody, which was 100% my intention.
However, someone, somewhere clearly wasn’t having fun with it. Out of the blue, the account was locked down and I could not access it.
I had a mysterious e-mail from a character called “Billy Pilgrim” purporting to be from Twitter, telling me it was not clear enough the site was a parody and I should make appropriate changes to the bio on the profile.
This I tried to do, but failed. An online trawl of the name Billy Pilgrim suggested this was no-one actually officially connected with Twitter. Surely my account had not been hacked by someone seeking to close it down?
Undeterred, I set off again, furious that someone might have resorted to these underhand methods. This time – and for the absolute sake of clarity – the account was named as @UnSteveDorkland and the bio made it absolutely clear it was a parody.
All continued as before and most of my previous followers re-found me and followed again. As I stated, at most I had up to 150 followers, although I note today that, post the publicity of Northcliffe’s actions last week, I am now at 200 and rising.
After the subpoena landed I stopped tweeting. Not out of fear or because I have done anything illegal or immoral but because I truly cannot believe Northcliffe is spending its resources – both time and money – in this fruitless pursuit.
I think the paraphrase here is “life’s too short”. If the CEO of a UK regional media company is prepared to instruct lawyers in California to chase the details of a Twitter account which has a maximum of 150 followers then it’s time to announce we’ve found Kafka’s true heir.
So, that’s my story. What is Mr Auckland’s? He has gone public with his reasons for pursuing me as the fact he wishes to protect his staff and save them from harassment.
A hollow laugh at the absurdity of that statement will ring around many offices – and not just at the suggestion that the tweets have been ‘harassing’ people, other than those who ought to be self-aware enough to know that with high office comes a few brickbats along the way.
I have a simple view on the events of the past six weeks. People are entitled to their views on whether the tweets where funny or not. They are also entitled to therefore decide whether to follow the account or not.
Yes, the account is irreverent, piss-taking, absurd and even close to the mark on occasions. But it is those very absurdities and that pricking of pomposity, that it was created to air. For many it proved to be the antidote to the rather brutal way in which they feel they and their business has been treated in the past few months. And if it gave them a laugh amid all this then my work here is done.
Of course, none of us have ever seen Mr Auckland taking the piss out of colleagues or being sharp with them, or dismissive, or laughing at the absurdities of the situations he finds himself in, have we? And so his outrage at this anonymous tweeter is more than justified when seen in that context….
As I write, Twitter has until August 1st, 2012, to decide whether to comply with the subpoena. In similar cases involving the requirement for it to hand over the tweets of an Occupy Wall Street protestor (you have placed us in exalted company Mr Auckland) it fought the process tooth and nail.
One can only hope the approach is similar in this case to ensure freedom of expression and privacy of an individual’s identity – two principles on which Northcliffe has built its business by the way – are protected and preserved.
I don’t ask anyone, anywhere, to like my approach or to find my tweets amusing. What I do ask is that they recognise the sinister nature of what has happened to me and to realise that if this continues unchecked and unchallenged then others who deserve far more protection of their privacy than I do will, ultimately, be exposed to the clawing, angry, inquisitive ire of corporations with expensive lawyers and an agenda to run.