Facebook shopped BBC hacks to National Crime Agency over child abuse images probe

PR 101: How not to head off an embarrassing investigation

+Comment Facebook reported BBC journalists to the police after the reporters accidentally emailed them images of child sexual abuse, the social network's PR has alleged.

The BBC was investigating private Facebook groups used to share both legal and illegal images, some of the latter of which featured children being abused. Its journalists reported 100 images to Facebook's moderators but only 20 per cent of them were taken down.

As part of the investigation, the BBC wanted to interview Facebook's director of policy, Simon Milner, to ask why the offending images were not removed by moderators.

BBC reporter Angus Crawford said in his story that Milner's condition of agreeing to the interview was for the BBC to send him examples of the images that had not been removed.

Having received them, Facebook then immediately contacted the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the National Crime Agency to report that it had been sent images of child abuse.

Facebook's UK PR tentacle claimed to The Register that the BBC forwarded images it believed were legal but otherwise broke Facebook's terms and conditions. Upon looking at them, Facebook said it found images of child abuse and therefore reported the matter to the police. The BBC would not comment on this specific allegation.

In a statement sent to the BBC, Milner said:

We have carefully reviewed the content referred to us and have now removed all items that were illegal or against our standards. This content is no longer on our platform. We take this matter extremely seriously and we continue to improve our reporting and take-down measures. Facebook has been recognized as one of the best platforms on the internet for child safety.

It is against the law for anyone to distribute images of child exploitation. When the BBC sent us such images we followed our industry's standard practice and reported them to CEOP. We also reported the child exploitation images that had been shared on our own platform. This matter is now in the hands of the authorities.

The BBC was at pains to emphasise that all the images it sent to Facebook were pictures it had found on Facebook's own platform and which had not been taken down despite reports to site moderators, and that Facebook had specifically asked for the material to be sent across.

+Comment: Yes, you had to call the cops – but you were dickheads about it

There is a formal memorandum of understanding between police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, ISPs and social media platforms. It sets out how authorised people handling reports of child abuse images on the internet should act to avoid being prosecuted themselves. Companies can also sign "specific agreements" with the authorities that give quasi-legal effect to internal processes for moderators handling reports of child abuse imagery.

The memorandum is very clear: anything not covered by it, or any agreement's strictly drawn terms, is likely to lead to prosecution.

Nonetheless, neither the memorandum nor its underlying statute, the Protection of Children Act 1978, has any public interest defence for reporters investigating paedophile rings. ®

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