mumsnet threatened with libel action

MumsnetMumsnet is a site offering advice to expectant parents, support for those suffering bereavement following miscarriage, answers to obscure pregnancy questions, pushchair reviews and much much more.

Sadly, it’s also a site that could find itself closed following legal threats made by solicitors acting for Gina Ford, a leading British baby and child-care expert.

In a letter to the ISP that hosts Mumsnet, Ford’s solicitors give several examples of what they feel are defamatory statements about their client. Unfortunately, mumsnet has, following Ford’s legal threats, had to take the dramatic step of asking it’s users not to discuss or even mention Gina Ford, even though "banning all mention of her on a website for parents is a bit like barring discussion of Manchester United from a football phone-in".

I think the problem is that Ford just doesn’t get that the internet isn’t like old media and that people have conversations here – something that isn’t terribly surprising given some of the things she told the Guardian in a 2003 interview:

"Someone called me the Howard Hughes of childcare because I’m so reclusive," she says. "I don’t like talking to people. I don’t have time to analyse things unless they’re affecting my life seriously, but I expect that goes back to my childhood."

So much for "joining the conversation".

In the same interview, Ford reveals that, had her mother been equipped with the parenting skills she now writes about, Ford would probably now "be a solicitor or something, with three kids, and that would be no bad thing because it is quite difficult being the UK’s leading childcare expert and being childless. People do love to have a dig at that." 

Ford obviously knows she’s controversial and, one would hope, can live with that. As far as I’m aware, Ford hasn’t made any take-down requests of Amazon, which carries lots of positive reviews one of her books about potty training:

I decided to buy this book to help with potty training my 28 month old. It really works. Within a week she was potty trained. No hassle, no tears, no tantrums, no pull ups, just straight to wearing pants and using the potty.

Alongside a smaller number of negative reviews, like this one:

"Yes, I tried her method to toilet train my son (nearly three) on the potty. And it ended in tears for both of us. I know many mothers worship Ms Ford but I found her approach inflexible, prescriptive and unrealistic."

But perhaps it’s the sentiment of this amazon review that Ford is most worried about:

"If you need advice – use a search engine – there is plenty of good advice for free on the net so save your money!"

Mumsnet, of course, provides lots of free advice on potty training. Hey, and up until now, many users had whole heartedly recommended Ford’s books to other users. Not just that, but they offer forums for parents to share their own tips, ideas and support in a way that Ford’s books aren’t able to do – but which, in some cases, were bound to help Ford’s readers have greater levels of success, leading to more recommendations and more book sales.

But if you’re like Ford and "…don’t like talking to people. I don’t have time to analyse things…" then you probably wouldn’t have realised that.

<< UPDATE >>

I had a look at Gina Ford’s site, Contented Baby, and was surprised to find links to a community area. It’s members only so, before registering, I decided to have a look at the terms and conditions – and was quickly overcome by a sense of déjà vu.

Have a look at the wording of section 6 (community rules), 4.5 ("does not warrant that ") and 3.2 (limits of liability) on Contented Baby Terms and Conditions in comparision to the corresponding items in the BBC’s terms and conditions, particularly 11 (community rules), 7 ("does not warrant that") and 6 (limits of liability) within the BBC’s terms and conditions. It’s funny how the exact same wording can crop up in multiple places.

< further update >

Nearly 150 Mumsnet users have (link credit: tigerfeet) added their names to a petition for "Freedom of Speach [sic] Over the Internet". The petition reads, in part, that: As users of the internet, we feel that we should be able to discuss certain "experts" in particular fields, and in order to have balanced discussions, we feel that all comments, both positive and negative, should be able to be taken into account

I think that whoever wrote the text for the petition missed that the law does, in fact, allow a defense for the discussion of individuals, including giving them or their products a negative review. Have a look at this defamation law resource and, in particular, the section about fair comment. There’s also lots of current caselaw here.

Sadly, it does appear that in at least one of the sample posts that appear in the letter sent by Ford’s solicitor, things might have gone just a bit too far. That said, following current legal thinking about notification and take down, it seems unlikely that Ford would win a case against mumsnet (but remember, I’m just someone who studied law and is an equity exam away from a law degree – I’m not qualified to give legal advice).

<<< yet another update >>>

Mainstream media (MSM) has picked up on this story in a big way.

One Comment

  1. A (controlled) crying shame

    I’ve never read a Gina Ford book. I’m not a member of mumsnet as I think my girls were a little older just as mumsnet was coming to the fore. That said, I have done my time on parenting forums,

Comments are closed.