Childcare Expert Threatens to have Website Shut Down

Gina Ford, the childcare expert whose advocacy of strict rearing techniques attracts critics and devotees in equal measure, has threatened to have a website used by 250,000 mothers shut down, claiming it has published allegedly defamatory remarks about her. Lawyers acting for the author and former maternity nurse have moved to “disable” – a site run part-time by seven mothers – because she says numerous “highly defamatory” postings have been carried in its chatrooms.

Her solicitors have written to the website’s internet service provider warning that they too will be considered targets for legal action unless they comply.

But the tactic was itself under fire yesterday amid claims from the website that the childcare guru is acting disproportionately.

Officials say the site remains under threat, despite the fact that all the contentious postings have been taken down. They say they have sought to react to each complaint from Ms Ford but cannot hope to monitor all the 10,000 contributions submitted to the website each day.

Members have been asked to protect the site by refraining from any further comment about Ms Ford and her philosophies.

It is understood the service provider is resisting pressure to close the site down, but the issue has nevertheless raised questions about the extent to which the internet can and should be policed. Last night one expert called for urgent government action to clarify the issue.

In a letter to the internet server DSC, Ms Ford’s lawyers say the disputed postings constitute “a gross personal attack on our clients character and reputation”. They complain of one posting in April, claiming it “bore the defamatory meaning that our client is cruel, uncaring and justifiably reviled because in her book The Contented Little Baby Book, she advised a mother to leave a five month-old baby to cry for three hours”.

Although the lawyers say the defamatory postings are “too numerous to list in full”, they also cite another from April claiming it “bore the defamatory meaning that our client has unpleasant and unhygienic personal habits”.

A third cited example, posted in July, “says our client straps babies to rockets and fires them into south Lebanon”.

Ms Ford’s lawyers were unavailable for comment yesterday.

But Mumsnet outlined its position with a statement posted on the website. “It is a surreal and rather sad moment,” it 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 to the site. Sad, too, because we would not be in this situation, were it not for an antediluvian set of laws that have failed to catch up with the reality of communication on the internet.”

Justine Roberts, who co-founded Mumsnet six years ago, told the Guardian that Mumsnet is neither a “pro- or anti-Gina Ford website”, adding: “You have to view these things as a conversation rather than a newspaper publication where it is possible to vet everything. The mothers are in revolt because they view this as a huge attack on their freedom of speech.”

Mark Stephens, the website’s lawyer, said he feared the possibility that “economic muscle” would be used to “prevent debate”. He added: “The mothers who are not going to be able to have a debate about Gina Ford’s methods are the losers here, as are the public. One can accept that she might have been hurt by some of the things that were said but one must also say that the pro voices met the antis. You must believe in the innate good sense of folk to make up their own minds.”

The Contented Little Baby Book has sold half a million copies. Her books, and there have been eight over the last seven years, are seen as a counter-argument to the liberal regimes of the 1970s and 1980s.

In April she wrote: “I am sure some people will ask how I have the nerve to write a book about motherhood when I’ve never had the pleasure of having children myself, even though I have helped care for more than 300 babies during my career …

“It is a cause of sadness to me that I never had a family. However, I do not feel this hinders me in my wish to help mothers everywhere when they ask for help.

Yaman Akdeniz of the internet thinktank Cyber Rights said the laws governing what can safely be said are so vague he advises people to base sites abroad. “In 2004 a law commission reviewed the law on internet defamation and said it needed to be updated. Nothing has happened since.”