Mothers' website falls foul of Queen of Routine
Tuesday 08 August 2006
In just a few years, Mumsnet has become a lifeline for 60,000 mothers looking for advice on everything from how to deal with a miscarriage to childcare and going back to work.
But the website, which prides itself of providing a community for parents to exchange experiences, was facing closure after infuriating one of the gurus of childcare, Gina Ford.
Discussions on the website about the author have angered Ms Ford so much that her lawyers have written to the site's internet provider demanding that it be closed down for "publishing defamatory statements". The postings, they say, include some which accuse Ms Ford of being unhygienic or cruel - even one which satirically suggested she "straps babies to rockets".
"We are, and continue to be, in contact with those hosting the Mumsnet site against whom we have instruction to issue High Court proceedings for defamation. We are writing to request that you disable the website with immediate effect," said a letter from Ms Ford's solicitor, Foot Anstey.
Unlike Mumsnet, which only just keeps its financial head above water, Ford has made a healthy living from her no-nonsense advice for parents. But along the way the Queen of Routine, as she is known, has gathered as many detractors as she has devotees.
Her strict style - first advocated in The Contented Little Baby Book - has left some in raptures but others devastated by feelings of inadequacy. Such is the influence of the former maternity nurse that her methods are a constant source of heated debate at mothers' meetings and - predictably - on websites.
Justine Roberts, a former sports journalist who set up the advice forum with two other mothers after a miserable child-unfriendly holiday six years ago, said they had done everything to try to placate the childcare expert. The website has now asked its members not to discuss Ms Ford - who once posted comments on the site herself under the name Ginababe.
"It is a surreal and rather sad moment," the statement said. "Surreal because, whatever you feel about her, Gina Ford is one of Britain's most respected and widely-followed authorities on raising babies - banning all mention of her on a website for parents is a bit like barring discussion of Manchester United from a football phone-in. Sad, because Ms Ford has plenty of fans both among Mumsnet members and here at Mumsnet HQ. Indeed she was for some time a member and contributor."
Ms Roberts, 38, who has just given birth to her fourth child, said: "It is kind of ridiculous. DSC [the internet service provider] has responded to say this is disproportionate. You would not shut down the BBC because you disagreed with one story."
The website's troubles began early this year when Ms Ford e-mailed the editors requesting they remove a transcript of a Q&A interview because of the content of members' messages.
Since then they have received, Ms Roberts estimated, as many as 20 legal letters and e-mails making increasing demands.
In April, Ms Ford's lawyers demanded the site publish a statement disassociating itself from the comments; delete derogatory ones; ensure they were not accessible through search engines; implement a procedure to monitor posts and pay Ms Ford damages and legal costs.
Mumsnet said the discussion forum had mostly been one of healthy debate, but the anonymity of the postings - under names from anorak to gothicmama - had not only allowed frank discussion on embarrassing issues but also personal attacks.
Ms Roberts said the libel laws were outdated in relation to websites. "We won't deny there are occasions where it gets personal - jokes no one would like to be the butt of.
"These break our abuse policy and if someone identifies these comments we will take them down. But we have 10,000 posts a day. We need our members to be self-policing."
Ms Ford was unavailable for comment.
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