Yvonne Roberts: This childish spat raises a vital issue

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Gina Ford, "the Queen of Routine", the so called childcare guru and author of The Contented Little Baby, is definitely not a happy bunny. She boasts that as a maternity nurse she has cared for 300 babies in 20 countries. Perhaps because she has spent so much time with infants whose conversation is restricted to burps, farts, sobs and chuckles, she's not had the need to consider the principles attached to the right to freedom of speech. Now's the time she should.

Lawyers for Ms Ford have written to the internet provider of a website called Mumsnet demanding it be closed down for "publishing defamatory statements". Mumsnet provides advice for 60,000 mothers. Members using names such as "gothicmama" take part in a discussion forum, sending anonymous postings. Some of them - tut! tut! - have been extremely rude about Ms Ford, claiming she is unhygenic, cruel and a nursery terrorist. Ms Ford has said she is astonished and hurt by the criticism. "I know what I write is controversial but what surprises me is the vitriolic and personal attacks that people make," she says, clearly not as clued up on the current price of fame as she is on colic.

Justine Roberts, who set up the advice forum with two other mothers six years ago, says Mumsnet has received up to 20 legal letters and e-mails from Ms Ford's lawyers, demanding that derogatory statements be removed and requesting damages. She has tried and failed to satisfy Ms Ford's escalating requests. Members have been ordered not to mention Ms Ford or her methods, "a bit like barring discussion of Manchester United from a football phone-in".

Gina is big business; a Goliath in the nappy world. She earns a fortune telling mothers how to boss their babies into docile submission. Mumsnet, in contrast, struggles for survival and, as a result of Ford's efforts, may now go bust. The internet provider has refused Ms Ford's request, saying, "You would not shut down the BBC because you disagreed with one story." But, her lawyers are unflagging.

A storm in a feeding cup this may seem, but it touches on an issue that matters to us all. It raises the question of whether the present law of libel and defamation is too tough when it comes to the non-commercial side of the internet in which people blog and chat in a cyber-conversation. Does it impose too much of a restriction on a method of communication that - for all its errors and sometimes poisonous fabrications - also brings facts and information that, at best, has the power to revolutionise thoughts and actions?

Under the law of libel, damage to reputation and, therefore, loss of earnings is assumed in what's written or published. The law of slander requires that loss of earnings be proved. It would be healthier for democracy if only the law of slander were applied to websites such as Mumsnet that give its members a voice.

Aussies do it better

Macca offers £10m. Heather is allegedly in pursuit of £200m - presumably calculating that's an awful lot of land mines cleared. Both have now hired lawyers charging £500 an hour.

Welcome to a divorce guaranteed to run longer than Coronation Street - to the detriment of their two-year-old, Beatrice.

What two warring people need least is the legal profession. Last month, Australia introduced a system of family law that recognises the damage lawyers can do: a couple sit in a room with two negotiators, two counsellors and a magistrate, until a deal is done. The result of this in pilot schemes has been reduced animosity and more money left over.

What McCartney and Mills need most isn't high-profile legal teams, it's three months of non-communication to cool down - and a shot of common sense.

* Illiteracy may be an issue but alliteration rules OK in Deborah and Christopher Haine's home. Both, aged 41, elected to call their children, Shlaine and Caine. What they neglected to do - is send them to school.

Magistrates were told the Haines, pictured, had shown "complete disregard" towards Shlaine's school attendance. Aged 14, she and her 12-year-old brother appear rarely in class.

Now, the Haines have been locked up for four months - possibly much to the delight of Shlaine whom, if she is like many teenagers, will say she can't stand the sight of them anyway.

Will it teach the Haines a lesson? Unlikely. Will it improve parent and offspring relationships? Hardly. Is the sentence a deterrent to others? Probably not. So, what has it achieved? A family even more fractured and five minutes of fame for Shlaine and Caine.

A note to the magistrates: must try harder.

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