Tony Lankester
Tony Lankester

What would Isabel do?

(This piece originally appeared on tonylankester.com)

South African blogger Donn Edwards is being sued for libel by a timeshare company called Quality Vacation Club (QVC) after he wrote of his experience with the company. I have no axe to grind with the timeshare industry. But if they bend the rules and dupe people into buying things they don’t want, then they should be exposed.

But this post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of Donn’s case or the relative sleaziness of those who employ dodgy means to sell timeshare. What worries me, as someone who from time to time vents online about bad or downright shady service they get from someone, is the prospect of the floodgates being opened for litigation from any big corporate who is feeling hard done by or belittled by a blogger. This is going to be an interesting test case for South African online journalism and free speech.

But there’s another angle to this. Bloggers are quick to demand the same rights afforded other media and citizens, to jump up and down if they feel they are being silenced or muzzled in some way. However, they are less quick to adopt some of the practices the other media use to ensure that, in exercising their right to free speech, they also adopt the principles of fairness and balance.

In a newspaper, radio or TV newsroom there are gatekeepers. People who read copy, scanning it for any hint of inaccuracy or looming lawsuits. By the time the story is aired or published, there’s a reasonable chance it is accurate. And when it is not, the industry self-regulates. Apologies, retractions and corrections follow. Given how much news is generated every single day, the fact that lawsuits are few and far between shows that the system works. (Although some still lie awake and worry.)

But in the blogosphere no such gatekeepers exist. The only “reason check” sits between the bloggers brain and their fingers. Ranting, typing and publishing is all too easy. The problem is that many bloggers are picking and choosing the bits of the practice of conventional journalism that suit them, and ignore the bits that don’t. And then they hide behind “free speech”. But with Google, RSS feeds and Trackbacks, whatever you write on your blog is going to stick around far longer than what is printed in a newspaper, which is destined to wrap fish and chips tomorrow. And blogs have a potential audience far wider. So, if anything, bloggers should be more cautious than “traditional” news journalists.

I have zero sympathy for the timeshare companies. And Donn Edwards seems to have written an honest and factual, albeit one-sided, report on his experience with them. And he’s already won in the court of public opinion. But he was never going to lose there, was he? If it looks like a rat, smells like a rat and walks like a rat then, yes, everyone agrees that it is probably a timeshare salesman. And legal opinion quoted in the Sunday Independent suggests that Donn will prevail in court. Which, in turn, implies that QVC (who presumably have been told that by their phalanx of lawyers) are merely flexing their muscles and bullying Donn. In so doing I think they have grossly underestimated the blogosphere and the damage they are doing to their own brand – which is way more than, ironically, they are suing Donn for. So, in this instance, I hope that he sticks it out and wins the battle and doesn’t settle out of court.

But there’s a warning in his experience that all bloggers, myself included, should heed. If you’re going to play in the sandpit of journalism, learn all the rules. Even if you plan on breaking them. At least learn from the dozens of court cases that have preceded you. Just because the online world is on screen only, it doesn’t mean that the real world laws of defamation and libel don’t apply. And just because you are your own headline writer, journalist, copy editor, editor and publisher, it doesn’t mean you have latitude to ignore the basic courtesies, practices and principles of good journalism.

And, actually, the rules can make for more compelling and convincing writing. A while ago I blogged about an experience I had at the Constantia branch of Woolworths. I wrote up the piece, appended the photographs I intended using and sent it to the Woolworths media office before I clicked “Publish”. They responded well – giving me time to talk to some of their senior staff who could address my issues. They were open and honest (adopting the corporate PR mantra “Tell the truth. Tell it fast. Tell it well.”). It didn’t stop me publishing or using the photographs, but I was able to amend what I had written to be fairer to them, to reflect their views, and a whole new angle to the story emerged that was, frankly, more interesting than what I had written in the first place.

And if you don’t learn from any of that, take a lesson from the doyenne of fair play. I was fortunate once to work with the late Isabel Jones – every consumer’s champion and every sleazeball’s worst nightmare. She was a remarkable woman – tenacious and tiny, with the demeanour of Jessica Fletcher until she was patronised or rubbed up the wrong way by someone in a shiny suit and white shoes. She was happiest when she was being chased down the street by spanner wielding mechanics, cameras rolling and microphones live. Those who watched her on TV or listened to her on radio actually had the wrong impression of Isabel. They thought – because she wanted them to think – that she was a no holds barred, pull no punches street fighter. She wasn’t. She was equally quick to spike a story or stop reporting on it if she felt that the company under the microscope was unfairly coming out of it badly. Sometimes consumers are simply stupid. And they would threaten and argue with people, and misrepresent their story to get Isabel on side. She had no time for that. Were she alive today I would have loved for her to have a blog. And she would have done it well. She was never hysterical. She was always questioning herself as harshly as she questioned those across the desk from her. She was her own gatekeeper. And no one messed with her. See – one person working solo can do it. So should we all.