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CAMH BULLETIN - October 2006

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War of words between Gina Ford and parenting website

CAMH Bulletin Editorial Office
Published 5 September 2006

A row has erupted between parenting guru and bestselling author, Gina Ford, and Mumsnet, a leading online parenting community. The dispute, originating in allegations of libellous material being published in the discussion boards of the website, culminated in legal action by Ford including threats to close down the website and seek damages.
Gina Ford, bestselling childcare author
Gina Ford, bestselling childcare author

Mumsnet first received demands from Ford in January 2006 that they remove from their website transcipts of an interview provided by Ford several years ago. Ford explained that a number of members of Mumsnet had recently posted negative comments on the website about her. "I really have no wish to get into costly legal wrangles," she wrote. "But on the other hand I will not allow the advice, that I gave through sheer kindness, to be misrepresented on a website that spends much of its time printing propaganda about my methods."

Justine Roberts, who co-founded Mumsnet, explained in a recent commentary in the Guardian newspaper: "Ms Ford, who famously advocates strict routines for newborns and their mums, polarises opinion among parents of young children everywhere, and the bulletin boards of Mumsnet are no exception. For the past four months, however, Ms Ford has taken a series of increasingly menacing steps, through her lawyers, to stifle all negative comment about her on the site. She doesn't see it that way, of course. In her statement last night she insisted she had been the victim of 'a defamatory campaign waged against me as a person'."

Unsurprisingly, the discussion boards of the website have traditionally contained a relatively balanced mix of members speaking out for and against Gina Ford's methods. What appears to have sparked the current dispute is a post made in the bulletin board in which the member suggested that Gina Ford "straps babies to rockets and fires them into south Lebanon".

Roberts continued: "Instead of requesting the removal of offending posts, she has demanded the deletion of whole threads containing hundreds of voices; her lawyers have been consistently bullying and patronising; and even when we acceded to their every request (including introducing a new monitoring regime specially for posts relating to Ms Ford), they insisted they would go to court to seek damages and costs against us. Finally, last week, they took the extraordinary step of writing to Mumsnet's internet service provider demanding that it 'disable' the site or itself face legal proceedings."

A statement from the website acknowledged: "It is undoubtedly a tasteless joke, particularly under current circumstances, but when the post appeared on our site no-one imagined even the most humourless reader could possibly take it seriously. But evidently we were wrong."

The ongoing legal dispute not only raises interesting issues about freedom of speech, but highlights uncertainty as to who owns the legal responsibility for postings made within such bulletin boards. Differing views might suggest this responsibility lies with the publisher of the website, or the internet service provider (ISP), or the individual contributor themselves. In any case, it is hard to expect a website to do more than to remove abusive postings as and when they occur.

Mumsnet's homepage now contains the following instruction to all would-be contributors: "It is with great regret that we have to ask members to refrain from any further discussion of Gina Ford, her methods or her books on the site."

Ironically, the effect of this ban is that her many supporters among the website's membership will no longer be able to recommend either her books or her methods. Good parenting methods often call for a considerable degree of "thick skin" on the part of parents - as anyone who has used "controlled crying" will attest. Perhaps "thick skin" might have been a more useful strategy in dealing with the stupid joke posted by a member of the public on the Mumsnet website.

This page was last modified on 5th October 2006
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