Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Celebrate freedom of expression with us! (But not yours).

I was going to be posting about something else today, but I couldn't let this one pass.

Joe Gordon worked for Waterstone's in Edinburgh for eleven years. He doesn't any more, because he's just been sacked. His offence was posting on his personal blog (a newsletter he's been running since 1992, long before he worked for Waterstone's), in his own time, a few jokey references to his company. He called Waterstone's Bastardstone's. Oooh. He made reference to someone who left the company being on the 'Escape Committee'. Wow. Some of these references were two years old. And the audience for his blog? About 20 hits a day. Whoopee.

Now personally I think that if the management of Waterstone's have such a low opinion of their public standing that they can't tolerate a little bit of grousing from an employee, it's rather sad and very risible. But I guess they're entitled to be petty, and I don't think it would have been hugely unreasonable for his manager to call him in for a quick word, and say look, we're really not happy about this at all, and we'd like you to stop discussing your work life online, please. Gordon says on his blog that had they done so, he'd have stopped.

But they didn't. They held a disciplinary hearing, and then they sacked him. No warning, a straight dismissal, just as would happen if they caught you with your hand in the till. The company that a few years back ran a publicity campaign saying "What did Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot have in common? They feared the power of the written word. Celebrate Freedom of expression with us" sacked him.

There's a couple of things about this that I wanted to talk about, rather than simply ranting on about how petty and how petulant his sacking was. (And it was. It really was.)

Gordon made mild fun of his employer, in passing, on a public web page. Some people would argue that this is wrong. I'm interested in where they think the lines should be drawn.

If doing this on a webpage is a sackable offence, how about standing in a pub talking to a friend, saying the same things out loud that Gordon posted to his website? You get overheard, this is reported back to your employer. Fair enough to dismiss now? How about walking down the street, talking to your spouse on your mobile, saying the same things - sackable offence?

How far should corporate control over the lives of the people who sell them their labour and time for a contracted period each week extend? They buy your time, your work, your expertise. Do we now meekly agree that they buy *you* too?

Should we cower in our homes, talking in mumbled voices and desperately hoping that our nearest and dearest aren't really informers for our employers? Or should we never criticise, never poke fun, keep it all bottled in and hope that our own Bastardstone's don't wheel out the polygraphs and the Orgone Mind Reading Detector Ray Devices?

The second point is the sheer idiocy of what they have done.

Waterstone's sacked Gordon for bringing the company into disrepute. Since then, this story has been all over the web, people like Neil Gaiman and Richard Morgan are lending their support (Morgan's written a great letter to Waterstone's, which is reproduced on Gordon's blog), a number of national newspapers have picked it up, and so on.

So, who's brought the company into greater disrepute: Gordon, and his tiny-audience blog, or the management who sacked him and brought world-wide criticism down upon the company? Perhaps they should be summoning themselves into their offices right now to tell themselves to clear their desks.

I don't know Joe Gordon, have never corresponded with him even, but as a writer and a reader I object to what Waterstone's have done, and the way in which they have done it. I hope that some of you will feel the same way, especially as its evident that Joe has done a lot to promote authors of speculative fiction, and their work.

Charlie Stross has written an excellent blog entry about the whole affair, and in his comments he points out:

"I would advise Edinburgh natives that, in addition to there being numerous branches of Waterstone's and a Borders out at Kinnaird Park, there's also a very good specialist SF bookshop (Transreal, on the Grass Market), and another book chain: Ottakars bought out most of the former James Thin stores when Thin's went bankrupt a couple of years ago, and they seem to be doing well by them."

If you are annoyed enough by this to find your own local alternatives to Waterstone's then please do tell Waterstone's why you are doing so.

Waterstone's Booksellers Ltd
Capital Court
Capital Interchange Way


At 5:15 PM, Blogger Matthew_Rossi said...

If I lived anywhere near a Waterstone's, I wouldn't give them a dime of my business ever again. Your point about them thinking they own us is very apt: it's every bit as bad over here, I'm afraid, if not worse.

At 2:05 AM, Blogger Ariel said...

I'll be running some stats at the weekend (I actually host Woolamaloo on the back of the TAO account) and sending them up to Joe, but I can tell you that his 'tiny audience' had swelled to some 14,600 unique visitors by 20:45 GMT yesterday as a result of the media coverage... given that the typical breakdown of 'Waterstone's were wrong' vs 'Joe was an idiot' commentary seems to be about 99% to 1% so far, then that's an awful lot of folks that Waterstone's have alienated...


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