Staff at the Australian Financial Review are being asked to sign up to an ethics policy under which they could be disciplined — even sacked — for taking part in political debates on social media sites and blogs, or for writing books and accepting speaking engagements.

The nine-page Editorial Ethics Policy has been circulated to staff at the AFR, including AFR-branded magazines and Business Review Weekly, in the past few weeks. Most of it is uncontroversial, if tough. It picks up and expands on the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics, and goes much further in some areas, such as share trading and the handling of market-sensitive information.

But the prohibition in using online social networking and blogs for anything other than personal purposes is new and internally controversial, at a time when many journalists are increasingly using Twitter and Facebook to promote and take part in debate on their stories.

Also ruffling feathers is a provision under which journalists must inform the editorial director if activities by members of their family “may compromise the journalist or the AFR.”

There are some other interestingly tough clauses. AFR journalists are instructed to use public relations advisers “solely to provide access to primary sources. Any other PR should be treated as a commercial purpose similar to advertising.” Many reporters might applaud that one, while lamenting the difficulties of putting it into practice.

Reporters are told to make sure they don’t disclose share price sensitive information before the markets have closed. “This may require telephone calls, emails being sent outside ASX trading hours for the purposes of confirming or corroborating information.”

Under a section headed “public activities” AFR journalists are told they must avoid any “prominent activity in partisan public causes” that might compromise them or the AFR.

Journalists are only allowed to use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, forums and “other websites that invite community participation in a strictly personal capacity”. They are not to “engage in political, economic or cultural debates in a manner seen by the editorial director to compromise the journalist’s integrity and ethics.” Journalists are also not to use such sites to discuss forthcoming material appearing in the AFR.

Full-time AFR journalists are prohibited from working outside Fairfax, including on books or by accepting speaking engagements. The editorial director can waive this prohibition — which presumably will come as a considerable relief to noted AFR authors such as Neil Chenoweth.

By signing the policy — which I understand very few reporters have done — staff agree that they can be disciplined “up to and including summary dismissal” for any breach.

Now, how bad is this? It is certainly tough. I like lots of the clauses, but personally, I don’t think I would lightly give up my right to, for example, write books or express my opinions. But then I am a freelancer.

I’d be even more concerned about being constrained in social networking. Such a constraint gives a massive serve of power to the employer. Social networking is going to become one of the main ways in which people discover media content online. It is also going to become vital to journalists, particularly freelancers, in building reputations and followings as the institutional media declines. Very soon now, a journalist without an active social network will be next to invisible.

On the other hand, reporters are kidding themselves if they think they cannot or should not be held to account for what they do and say on Twitter and the like.

It will be interesting to see whether the AFR journalists cop this or ask for some amendments.

I placed a call to AFR editor Glenn Burge this morning asking for comment, but nobody had got back to me before Crikey’s deadline. If they do so later, I’ll put it on the Content Makers blog.