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Sometimes, when I’m bored, or a bit down and feel the need to believe there are people in the world who are worse to me (worse, not worse off), I turn to TripAdvisor.
I’m sure there are perfectly reasonable people on TripAdvisor. Perfectly normal people, who may have enjoyed a dinner somewhere, or made friends with the barman at their holiday hotel, and thought “I must tell the world! These hardworking service industry people deserve my support.” I’m sure there’s lots of that going on on TripAdvisor (other review sites are available).
These happy people do not concern me. No, these are not the reviews I want to read. I seek out the one and two stars which are often written by the worst people in the world.
Petty, greedy, stingy, paranoid and usually convinced of their own way with imagery. Imagine eating out with these people.
The waitress approaches, smiling (as they often do):
“Would you like to see the wine list?”
“Yes please.” (List is delivered. Exit waitress).
“What do you think she meant by that?”
“Asking if we wanted the wine list like that.”
“Didn’t you hear her?”
“Yes. She said ‘Would you like to see the wine list?’ They often do.”
“But it was the waaaayyyy she said it.”
“Uh.” (Scans room for exits, sees only cheery floor staff).
On goes the evening. Everything is noted. The wine is too cold, the food too hot. Side orders are too expensive, there’s a draft only your dining partner can perceive. The service is too slow/fast. Somehow, in spite of it being a busy night, the waitress has been giving your companion a Paddington hard stare all night.
No, you certainly will not be having dessert, not at these prices.
The bill arrives, and is divided down to the last pea (“You got more ice in your tap water than I did”).
You depart, he on his bus, you on yours. On his way home, he cancels his debit card because he’s sure the restaurant people will have cloned it. You reach home and climb into bed, despondent. His fun though, has just begun.
Pouring himself a decent measure of the large whisky he hides when visitors are around, he settles on the sofa and logs into TripAdvisor (other review sites etc).
“Our trouble started,” he types. “When my friend called to book the table.” (You are now implicated).
“Having read my neighbour Giles Coren’s fine review in the Times of London, I was expecting high things of Brasserie Sarkozy. Methinks Coren the Younger’s judgement may have been clouded by one too many stiffeners over lunch, perhaps with his delightful sister, Victoria (with whom I would be only too happy to ‘Only Connect’!)…”
Why are you friends with this person again? On he goes. The broccoli was insufficiently purple. The steak (always steak) was “inferior” to the Specially Selected 30 Day Matured Aberdeen Angus Sirloin you get in Aldi for just £5.99. The staff were too casual, the room too stuffy, the building in the wrong neighbourhood… And the prices? Is this Monte Carlo?
And he wouldn’t have minded that much if it wasn’t for the rat he almost certainly saw in the gents.
Your friend clicks “one star” closes down his computer, and heads for bed, to dream of the panic when the restaurant’s owners (shysters and rip-off merchants every last one of them) discover his latest mighty internet onslaught.
One wonders if your friend (let’s call him gourmand_Gareth, as that’s what he calls himself), drunk on power, has considered the consequences. Particularly the consequences of the claim about the rat in the toilets, which, while he didn’t quite intentionally make up, is a bit of a misreport. Specifically, he’s moved the rat’s location from “in his imagination” to “standing on the cistern, singing Blur’s classic Britpop ballad To The End”. It didn’t happen. It is wrong to publish a review saying it did. It’s quite probably libellous. In fact, the chef is on the phone to his lawyer right now.
I don’t like your friend (I suspect you don’t either, but you’ve known him since school when… Actually you didn’t like him then either, did you?), but I don’t want him to end up in trouble.
But this is what could happen. While there’s only ever been one successful libel case against a restaurant reviewer in the United Kingdom (Goodfellas v Irish News, 2007, overturned on appeal, fact fans), there has been a rise in libel cases involving social media and the web. According to the Independent, there was a 300 per cent increase between 2012-13 and 2013-14 alone.
In spite of the work done by Index on Censorship and others in improving England’s libel laws, being sued — even being threatened with libel action — is still a deeply unpleasant experience, and quite possibly an expensive one too. Meanwhile, continued threats to the concept of the “mere platform” (that is to say, a site such as TripAdvisor, which allows people to post content without pre-moderation, should not be held legally liable) face threats from the actions of Max Mosley and others who are determined that the web be a more tightly controlled space.
Pre-moderation (editing, in effect) is anathema to how we use the web every day. Try to imagine having to send every tweet to some poor bugger in an office in Dublin who then has to decide whether it gets past every single restriction on speech in the European Union before he publishes it to your page. Not going to happen, no matter how many European courts believe it should.
But on the other side of the coin, people like your friend Gareth should at the very least be aware of what the laws are, and what risks they run. The past few years have seen countless cases of people facing civil and criminal sanction for tweets where they clearly had no idea what the law was (*innocent face*). This is not a plea for more laws, or even more self-censorship. But one does wonder if basic education in what the potential pitfalls of online interaction are, is necessary. Index and its partners are bringing out guides for artists to free speech and the law, but what about the rest of us? It’s too late for poor, silly Gareth.