Local blogger Donn Edwards was given a rather unwelcome early Christmas present last year. Papers were served on him by the RCIaffiliated Quality Vacation Club (QVC), citing defamation.
The company announced it was suing Edwards for almost R500,000 for blog posts criticising the company’s offering as misleading, and being a “scam”.
Edwards says he was essentially lured to a marketing presentation by QVC, allegedly disguised as a “prize-giving”.
The matter reached a peaceful resolution when, at the end of December, the 318 people on Edwards’s Facebook support group received an e-mail that the matter had been “settled out of court”. The case may now be closed, but unfortunately it’s not quite a case of all’s well that ends well.
There were two losers: freedom of speech and QVC, who, by launching legal action, mushroomed what would have been a small, isolated comment into a big media and blogger frenzy. (I suppose the third loser would have been Edwards and the weight he lost from the stress he experienced during the episode.)
It became a David vs. Goliath battle: one lone blogger against the much deeper pockets of a corporate. It demonstrates the stone-cold reality around the limitations of freedom of speech. In theory, any individual or blogger can write a critical post or “rant” in the parlance, but very few have the time, energy or resources to fight a legal case that may arise from it – regardless of the merits. To what extent will bloggers self-censor to avoid risk of being sued? In comparison, however, a journalist knows he or she has the backing of an institution, and as a result is less prone to intimidation and therefore more free to relentlessly pursue the truth.
I’ve often written, misty-eyed, about how blogging is democracy and free speech in action. But this case shows that this statement is only true up till a point, and in fact, true freedom of expression is often a hollow concept in the blogosphere.
The case also shows how unwise it is for a company to go after a blogger in this way. Almost instantly, Edwards became a superstar and a martyr for the cause.
A rough count shows that the subsequent story generated more than 50 articles and posts. Some of the big, widely read bloggers picked up on the issue, followed by media – and so the snowball effect kicked in.
Traditional media with its substantial reach (and formidable legal teams) picked up on the story.
A Facebook group followed, which attracted members and comments and aggregated blog and (more) media coverage of the issue. The story also regularly lead on social media site, muti.co.za, which serves as somewhat of a centrifuge for the country’s web 2.0 and geek community.
The issue attracted the attention of award-winning consumer journalist Wendy Knowler, who wrote that in her “10 years of consumer journalism I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve complained to me that they’ve been lured to a timeshare presentation by a telemarketer who insisted it was a prize-giving, and had nothing to do with timeshare”.
If nothing else, it’s a compliment to Edwards and the growing infl uence of bloggers that he became the object of litigation over a blog post.
Why QVC didn’t initially just comment and put their point across on Edwards’s blog, I’m not quite sure.
They could have even created their own blog putting their side of the story.
At the risk of sounding naïve, isn’t that what democracy is about? Robust debate and discussion?
Instead, legal action, intended to contain the situation, backfired making it a big, public event. It’s public relations 101, really.
Matthew Buckland is the head of publishing at 24.com. Read his blog at href=”http://www.matthewbuckland.com/”www.matthewbuckland.com!_LT_/a.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (February 2009).