Saturday, February 22, 2014
Ireland is different. Multicultural with a small ‘m’, it is also a modern country where citizens are aware of their rights, and where proper standards are demanded. In this, it would seem, ‘the force’ is somewhat out of time.
Garda Aidan Doherty thought he was going to die. His attacker produced a Stanley knife, lashed out, and cut an artery in Doherty’s right arm. The sergeant had been called to the Voodoo nightclub, in Letterkenny, on an August night in 2011. He was arresting a troublemaker, when the man stabbed him.
There was no first-aid equipment to put pressure on the wound and stop the bleeding. For a few minutes, as blood pumped from his body, Doherty thought he would die — for nothing more than doing his job.
Doherty made it through the ordeal and, eventually, got on with his life. Details of the assault were heard in a High Court action recently, but the incident demonstrates the dangers faced routinely by members of An Garda Síochána. There are major incidents from time to time, in which members are injured, sometimes seriously. On some — thankfully very few — occasions, a garda dies in the course of their duty.
But it’s the routine stuff that highlights the nature of working as a policeman. It can be hellishly dangerous, with the prospect of life-altering assault, or worse, right around every corner, in every town in a State in which a drink culture often leads to random violence.
That’s the dirty reality of the job. Over the last few weeks, another aspect of the culture in ‘the force’ has been splashed across the media landscape.
nWere members of the gardaí involved in bugging the garda ombudsman’s office?
n What’s the story with the corruption of the penalty points system?
n Were members of ‘the force’ responsible for the horrendous treatment of assault victim Mary Lynch?
n Is ‘the force’ dysfunctional?
The scandals of recent weeks would be easier to understand if the gardaí did not enjoy a high level of respect among the general population. Unlike in other democracies, the police force in this country is not separate from the mainstream population. Its members are drawn from right across society.
One of the reasons for the high regard for ‘the force’ stems from the homogenous society that existed here until the last 15 years.
In other countries, with large minority populations, the domestic police is often regarded with suspicion, for perfectly valid reasons.
One just has to look North, to the old RUC, to see how the police can become a stick with which to beat one section of society.
Today, Ireland is different. Multicultural with a small ‘m’, it is also a modern country where citizens are aware of their rights, and where proper standards are demanded. In this, it would seem, ‘the force’ is somewhat out of time.
The penalty points debacle is an obvious example. What has emerged is that, until recent days, a culture existed of some senior officers abusing the system to take care of family and friends.
Sometimes this involved deleting attached points for repeat offenders, whose driving was obviously habitually dangerous. Taking care of your people was standard fare in the old days.
Today, the carnage on the roads is addressed seriously. The penalty points system is regarded as a key tool in ensuring that safe practice is observed.
Yet that imperative was swallowed up by the old culture of ‘looking after friends and family’ — creating a two-track approach to road safety, by which those in the know could do as they pleased, while the wider population had to behave responsibly or suffer the consequences.
Then, there’s the matter of standards.
There are officers, and indeed units, within ‘the force’ that perform to the highest standards, right across the policing brief, from tackling organised crime to traffic management.
These officers do their jobs in the best traditions of public service, often with scant reward for efforts beyond the call of duty.
But in an organisation of 13,000 personnel, there are inevitably going to be slackers.
How these slackers are dealt with also harks back to an earlier age.
By and large, they are simply tolerated by others who want to get on with the job. The real problem arises when mistakes are made, either through slacking, or simply in the normal run of affairs.
The dossier of cases that Micheál Martin passed onto the Taoiseach, having received it from whistleblower garda, Maurice McCabe, is stuffed full of incompetence: cases not investigated; files gone missing; basic policing procedures ignored.
In some instances, a simple mistake was made at the outset of the investigation of a crime.
This is entirely human, but within the culture of the gardaí mistakes are not addressed in a manner designed to eliminate repetition.
Instead, the imperative is to ensure that nothing emerges that might impinge on the reputation of the force, or, more particularly, the careers of senior officers.
The result is a culture in which cock-ups are covered up, destined to be repeated, and inevitably impacting on the victims of crime, not to mention the professionalism of ‘the force’.
Is it possible that the dossier compiled by Sergeant McCabe gathers examples confined to one area of the country? Or is the problem endemic?
The police force is also out of time is in its attitude towards the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). It is obvious, now, that senior management within the gardaí have never accepted GSOC’s role as an overseer of ‘the force’.
The negative attitude to GSOC may well run through all elements of ‘the force’, but leadership comes from the management.
Again, this harks back to a different age, when ‘the force’ policed itself in a manner in which accountability was a moveable feast.
It took the scandal of corruption in Donegal for a government to install an oversight body, but while successive governments are big on legislation in this area, they have shown themselves to have precious little interest in the spirit of laws enacted.
And that goes to the nub of the issues that have surfaced recently about the gardaí. No large body, and particularly one as powerful as a police force, is going to take easily to change.
Any change is going to involve a devolution of powers, a requirement for accountability, opening a window to transparency.
That level of change, for an erstwhile insular organisation, demands a major push from the democratic leaders in the country. Laws are all very well, but political will is the key component in modernising the gardaí to ensure that it functions with proper accountability and professionalism.
That will is simply not there. And until such time as the main political parties take responsibility for pushing change, history is destined to repeat itself, with all its scandals and all its victims.
By Michael Clifford
Reviewed By ROGER LEWIS
Because the 18th century is far in the past - ships were under sail not steam; there were few paved roads and no railways yet; troops rode or marched - people can romanticise Napoleon in ways they can’t when it comes to Hitler, who is likely to remain our Number One bogeyman for some time yet.
Chaplin and Kubrick planned to make admiring films about Napoleon. Cagney wanted to play him. Brando did play him - as a brave and brooding hero with, as Michael Broers describes his subject, ‘seething impatience and energy lurking under the cool, authoritative exterior’.
Napoleon’s thoughts and emotions were set to music by Beethoven in the Eroica Symphony. Hazlitt and Sir Walter Scott wrote admiring portraits.
As Broers outlines in this judicious and magisterial biography, however, Napoleon, who died 70 years before Hitler was born, was a kind of proto-Fuhrer, his public pronouncements having a ‘messianic tone’ that was ‘spine-chilling’.
* Napoleon sold France’s territory in Louisiana to the newly formed United States for $15 million
* He loved extremely hot baths, thought to being relief from his painful piles....
* Arsenic was detected in his body after his death, leading to speculation that he may have been poisoned.
* He introduced the Napoleonic Code which restored the right of fathers to have troublesome children imprisoned.
Declaiming before the vanquished citizens of Egypt, for example, Napoleon said: ‘It is well you should know that all human efforts against me are useless, for all I undertake must succeed.’ You can easily imagine that translated into German and being yelled over the loudspeakers of the Reich.
Napoleon, like Hitler, also knew that occupied territories could only be retained ‘by brute force’. His policy, when arriving in a new spot, was ‘to burn a village’. Massacring a local population was an unequivocal ‘manifestation of his will’.
Napoleon encouraged the brutality of his soldiers, as this was ‘a clear sign of their devotion to duty’. Defeated towns and cities were turned over to his men in reward, ‘for a 24-hour spree of rape, looting and murder ... He did little to curb the desecration of churches, monasteries or even convents’.
Venice was stripped of its treasures, for instance, and ‘wagonloads of Renaissance masterpieces flooded into France’, including the bronze horses from St Mark’s Square.
Like Hitler, who rose from the confusions of Weimar and the ashes of World War I, Napoleon, born in 1769, was a child of the French Revolution, seizing ‘every chance that came his way in the midst of the most dangerous, uncertain times the western world had ever known’.
Having been raised in Ajaccio, Corsica, he was a model pupil at a military academy, which ‘inculcated in him his frugality, his aversion to ease and his iron self-discipline’. As a junior artillery officer at Toulon, he ‘displayed exceptional ability’, firing on British ships in the harbour. Admiral Hood had to order an evacuation.
Promoted to brigadier-general, ‘Napoleon was forced to be menacing and authoritative by circumstances’, says the ever-objective Broers, who then finds his subject in the Vendée, hunting down peasant and royalist rebels.
Napoleon rose to his new responsibilities ‘and quite obviously relished them’, particularly when he was despatched to command ‘the under-fed, virtually unpaid’ mob that constituted the French army in Italy.
Napoleon ordered supplies and reinforcements. Though he was always guilty of plundering and extortion, so too did he desire a reformation of military efficiency - and he was rewarded with victories against the Austrians on the plains of northern Italy. Indeed, after the Battle of Arcola, ‘I believed myself to be a superior man’, Napoleon, just 5ft 2in, said modestly.
His next posting was to the Middle East. Though ‘Nelson made short work of the French fleet’ at the mouth of the Nile, Napoleon’s land army took Cairo and Jaffa. The spoils of war included a giraffe, which unfortunately died on the way to Paris. Napoleon, however, returned to France as First Consul - prior to crowning himself Emperor in 1804 at a three-hour ceremony in Notre Dame.
Napoleon wasn’t only a military tactician, he had a genius for manipulating committees and running bureaucracies. Though surrounded by the ‘dark culture of mutual denunciation and suspicion’ that marked the Terror, he outwitted enemies who wanted to send him to the guillotine, created the Bank of France, thus stabilising the economy, had coins minted embossed with his own face in profile, and busily and single-handedly ‘initiated all legislation and appointed and dismissed ministers’.
Exceptional ability: Napoleon Bonaparte as a young artillery officer
Exceptional ability: Napoleon Bonaparte as a young artillery officer
He devised the Legion of Honour (still in existence) because even Republicans love medals and ribbons, set up schools (still in existence) favouring science and technology, and his Civil Code (still in existence) abolished primogeniture and reformed inheritance laws.
Meanwhile, the Austrians and Italians were re-mustering, and it took the Battle of Marengo for France to become master of Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
Though no Tolstoy, Broers describes it well: ‘The big horses ridden by big men, wielding sabres at close quarters, wreaked carnage on the fragmented Austrian infantry ... Blood and dust mingled on the fields.’
Guns got so hot, they couldn’t be handled for re-loading ‘for fear of igniting the cartridges. There was nothing for it but to piss in the barrels to cool them’.
Napoleon, again like Hitler, knew he could never be master of Europe without defeating the British. He began to make preparations to cross the Channel, but his invasion failed because of his ignorance of the sea.
He had ‘no grasp of the inherent problems of tide, wind and bad weather’. He was such a megalomaniac, he believed he could control the waves.
Also, Nelson, though he lost his own life doing so, defeated the French fleet again, at Trafalgar. Not only that, the Russians were mobilising in the east, in alliance with Austria, and Napoleon had to get his army away from Boulogne and to the Rhine.
Here, Volume One ends - with Austerlitz in prospect. Broers’ grasp of ‘violently changing times’ is unimpeachable, though I was surprised to read that Napoleon and Josephine ‘slept together for the first time in December 1795’ when they were ‘married on March 9, 1795 in a civil ceremony in a town hall in north-central Paris’.
Perhaps the delay in consummation was characteristic? After all, says Broers, ‘Josephine was a bad idea. The ruthless clarity of the public man deserted him at home’.
Not only that, ‘Napoleon’s letters to her are marked by passion, but a passion tinged by insecurity and desperation’. Given that Broers is such an expert - the Professor of Western European History at Oxford University, in the name of God - should the possibility of a comical misprint hence be ruled out, even if other sources say the couple were wed in March 1796?
A full-blooded Cherokee Indian named Morning White Dove was born in 1800. The white in the name referred to her status as a friendly Indian. Those that were called ‘red’ were classed as warlike or who had sided with the British redcoats during the American revolution. All this was lost, one way or another, on Morning White Dove for she was friendly enough that by the time she turned eighteen years old she married a white southerner named William Mansell. For him it was an easy choice made even easier for there was not too many white women on the America frontier back then to choose from.
William learned much from the union. He gained old Indian knowledge of the terrain, of forests and prairies, crops and game, medicine lore, healing plants, and the ‘setting of broken bones’. Morning White Dove in return had got a hard working man, a provider with some ambition, and that could sing a song or two when pressed. The world gained much more.
The mix of this handsome couple would help define the looks and spirit of one man many years later for without them he would never have been born at all. Morning White Dove and William Mansell would go on to become proud parents of three children whose eldest was a son called John Mansell.
In his turn, John would go on to become the great- great grandfather of Elvis Presley.
A very young Elvis
By Barry Clifford
Friday, February 21, 2014
Below is a real reply by the British tax office to an irate taxpayer. In the end, he still owed the money!
Dear Mr Addison,
I am writing to you to express our thanks for your more than prompt reply to our latest communication, and also to answer some of the points you raise.
I will address them, as ever, in order.
Firstly, I must take issue with your description of our last as a "begging letter". It might perhaps more properly be referred to as a "tax demand". This is how we, at the Inland Revenue have always, for reasons of accuracy, traditionally referred to such documents.
Secondly, your frustration at our adding to the "endless stream of crapulent whining and panhandling vomited daily through the letterbox on to the doormat" has been noted. However, whilst I have naturally not seen the other letters to which you refer I would cautiously suggest that their being from "pauper councils, Lombardy pirate banking houses and pissant gas-mongerers" might indicate that your decision to "file them next to the toilet in case of emergencies is at best a little ill-advised.
In common with my own organisation, it is unlikely that the senders of these letters do see you as a "lackwit bumpkin or, come to that, a "sodding charity". More likely they see you as a citizen of Great Britain, with a responsibility to contribute to the upkeep of the nation as a whole.
Which brings me to my next point. Whilst there may be some spirit of truth in your assertion that the taxes you pay "go to shore up the canker-blighted, toppling folly that is the Public Services", a moment's rudimentary calculation ought to disabuse you of the notion that the government in any way expects you to "stump up for the whole damned party" yourself. The estimates you provide for the Chancellor's disbursement of the funds levied by taxation, whilst colourful, are, in fairness, a little off the mark. Less than you seem to imagine is spent on "junkets for Bunterish lickspittles" and "dancing whores" whilst far more than you have accounted for is allocated to, for example, "that box-ticking facade of a university system."
A couple of technical points arising from direct queries:
1. The reason we don't simply write "Muggins" on the envelope has to do with the vagaries of the postal system;
2. You can rest assured that "sucking the very marrows of those with nothing else to give" has never been considered as a practice because even if the Personal Allowance didn't render it irrelevant, the sheer medical logistics involved would make it financially unviable.
I trust this has helped. In the meantime, whilst I would not in any way wish to influence your decision one way or the other, I ought to point out that even if you did choose to "give the whole foul jamboree up and go and live in India" you still owe us the money. Please forward it by Friday.
H J Lee Customer Relations
An internal review has been ordered at the Department of Justice amid mounting pressure on Justice Minister Alan Shatter to address opposition claims that he did nothing about Garda malpractice allegations for two years.
By Michael O’Kane, Juno McEnroe, and Cormac O’Keeffe
The review came as Mr Shatter said he had sacked garda confidential recipient Oliver Connolly because his reported comments to Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe “had undermined” the office of the recipient.
A review has been ordered of all correspondence in the Department of Justice in relation to Sgt McCabe’s allegations of Garda misconduct, which include cases as serious as murder, assault, and abduction.
Government sources confirmed the review after Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday described the content of the dossier given to him by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin as “extremely serious”.
Mr Kenny said Mr Martin was right to hand over the documentation, which he would carefully examine before deciding how to act. However, speaking in the Dáil, Mr Martin claimed the dossier of serious allegations had been sitting on Mr Shatter’s desk for two years and he had let them “run into the sand”.
He called on Mr Shatter to make a full statement in the House and to apologise for wrongly stating last October the whistleblower had refused to co-operate with a penalty points inquiry.
Mr Martin said: “The pertinent point is that these shocking cases were given to the Minister for Justice and Equality two years ago. There is no doubt about that and there is no doubt that he read and studied them.”
Sinn Féin pushed for a commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.
Also in the Dáil, Labour Party deputy leader Joan Burton refused to answer if she had confidence in Mr Shatter. However, she said that the Government did.
Addressing the row, Mr Shatter last night said Mr Connolly was dismissed as he had failed “to unequivocally repudiate the content” of the conversation between him and the whistleblower.
One of the extracts from the alleged conversation quoted Mr Connolly as telling Sgt McCabe: “If Shatter thinks you’re screwing him, you’re finished.”
In his statement, Mr Shatter said rumours of the existence of the taped conversation between the two had been circulating for some time. However, he added that, “given the importance of the office’s confidentiality, no justice minister could properly seek out such a transcript or tape”.
Meanwhile, a senior Garda source said complaints in the dossier were investigated fully by Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne over a two-year period. The source said that 10 volumes of documentation, broken down in modules, were sent to the DPP, who directed that no charges be taken.
To the Management Border Force, Stansted
Today is my 31st birthday, and having recently become a father I now realise how precious life is and how important it is to spend my time doing something that makes me, and other people happy.
For that reason I hereby give notice of my resignation, in order that I may devote my time and energy to my family and to my cake business which has grown steadily over the past few years.
I wish the organisation and my colleagues the best for the future and I remind you that, if you enjoy this cake, you can order more at www.mrcake.co.uk
Chris Holmes (Mr Cake)
Holmes posted the image on his Facebook
It’s not the first time an employee has said it with cake.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Father Doran: It's the Widow's field. She has the right to sell it.
"Bull" McCabe: No. It's my field. It's my child. I nursed it. I nourished it. I saw to its every want. I dug the rocks out of it with my bare hands and I made a living thing of it! My only want is that green grass, that lovely green grass, and you want to take it away from me, and in the sight of God I can't let you do that!
Father Doran: Can't you find another field?
"Bull" McCabe: Another field? Another field? Jesus, you're as foreign here as anyone. Another field? Are you blind? Those hands, do you see those hands? Those rocks! It was a dead thing! Don't you understand?
Father Doran: This is the Widow's field. That's the law. The common law.
"Bull" McCabe: There's another law, stronger than the common law.
Father Doran: What's that?
"Bull" McCabe: The law of the land. When I was a boy, younger than Tadgh there, my brothers and sisters had to leave the land, because it couldn't support them. We wasn't rich enough to be priests or doctors, so it was the emigrant ship for all of them. I were the eldest, the heir. I were the only one left at home. Neighbours were scarce. So my father and I, we had our breakfast, dinner, and tea, working in that field without a break in our work. And my mother brought us the meals.
One day, one day my father sensed a drop of rain in the air and my mother helped us bring in the hay before it was too late. She was working one corner of the field, and I was working in the other. About the third day, I saw her fall back, keel over so to speak. I called my father, I run to her. My father kneeled beside her. He knew she... he knew she was dying. He said an act of contrition into her ear and he asked God to forgive her sins. And he looked at me, and he said, "Fetch a priest." Fetch a priest... And I said, "Let's - let's bring the hay in first. Let's bring the hay in first." My father looked at me with tears of pride in his eyes. He knew I'd take care of the land. And if you think I'm gonna face my mother in Heaven or in Hell without that field, you've got something else coming. No collar, uniform, or weapon will protect the man that stands in my way.
It's the hotel review website that millions use to help choose their holiday. But... Can you trust a single word on Trip Advisor?
By sharing all your experiences, you’re helping other travellers make better choices and plan their dream trips. That’s what you are told before posting a review of a hotel or restaurant on the website TripAdvisor.
But better choices and dream trips don’t always come into it.
You might just as easily be unleashing your venom on a rival establishment.
Or talking up your own enterprise. Or simply settling a few scores.
What’s certain is that even those of us who are suspicious of TripAdvisor, and know deep down that we’re not getting the full story, find it hard to resist reading comments from happy or not-so-happy anonymous customers before booking a holiday, hotel room or even a restaurant table.
And there’s never a shortage of opinions on offer.
TripAdvisor receives 70 of them every minute, with more than 100 million reviews on the site at any one time. It has around 230 million online visitors each month and lists nearly three million hotels, restaurants and other attractions, along with eight million accompanying photographs.
This year, TripAdvisor — which bills itself as the world’s biggest travel site and employs 1,800 staff — is on course to achieve revenues in excess of $1 billion.
The trouble is that there is no way of proving how many of its reviews are genuine and how many are the work of fraudsters with axes to grind or hoteliers blowing their own trumpets.
It’s a win-win for TripAdvisor, but could it be a lose-lose for the rest of us?
After all, it’s further evidence of an encroaching X Factor culture where coming top of a popularity contest is mistaken for real talent.
The firm was launched 13 years ago by an American, Steve Kaufer, who remains company boss, above a pizza shop in Newtown, Massachusetts
TripAdvisor’s latest embarrassment involved a ‘simply divine’ and ‘mind-blowing’ restaurant in Brixham, Devon, called Oscar’s, where scuba divers were on hand to catch any particular fish that customers wanted served up on their plates.
This ‘irresistible’ floating restaurant was built into the hull of an old fishing boat off New Quay Lane, but moved with the tide.
The food was so delicious (‘impossible to get seafood any fresher than this … something bordering on sorcery,’ said a TripAdvisor review) that, despite sounding slightly implausible, customers started turning up in the hope of getting a table, even after being warned by email that it was booked out months in advance.
They went hungry — because Oscar’s did not exist. There were only a few bins and, latterly, some disgruntled foodies in New Quay Lane, but no restaurant.
A hoaxer had invented Oscar’s and posted the reviews himself to expose the TripAdvisor’s failings. The culprit, a businessman hiding behind the online pseudonym Oscar Parrot, said he wanted to see how long it took TripAdvisor to work out his submission was a fake.
"I was also aware that various establishments had contacted TripAdvisor about obvious fake reviews, but the response always seemed to be: “Tough luck!” ’ he told me.
His elaborate hoax follows the story of a hotel executive called Peter Hook, from Sydney, Australia, who was exposed in May of writing glowing reviews for his own hotels while castigating rivals. Using the pseudonym ‘Tavore’, the communications manager of Accor Hotels in Asia wrote 106 reviews about hotels in 43 cities.
Last year, the website was told to change the wording on its review page, which claimed that it offered 'trusted and honest' opinions
Once, after arriving in Britain, he raved about the Novotel Manchester Centre (‘the staff were fantastic and friendly’). He also liked the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island, where he noted that ‘families from the adjacent Hilton and Sheraton hotels were sneaking in to use the Sofitel pool’.
Needless to say, the Novotel Manchester and Sofitel Fiji are part of the Accor Hotels group, while Hilton and Sheraton are competitors.
TripAdvisor’s rules make clear that reviews ‘written by ownership or management, including past employees or anyone associated with/related to employees’ of the hotel are not permitted.
They also state that ‘individuals affiliated with a property may not review other properties of the same type (accommodation, restaurant or attraction) within the same city or town, or within ten miles of that property’.
But the fake Oscar’s and the self-serving scribblings of Peter Hook — who has been suspended from his job pending an internal inquiry — were exposed not by TripAdvisor’s ‘detection systems’, but by an online company that specialises in ‘reputation management’.
Kwik Chex was founded three years ago and has been locked in battle with TripAdvisor ever since, as more and more small hospitality businesses seek its help in persuading the website to look into alleged false or fraudulent reviews.
‘It’s become one big mess — with TripAdvisor being a law unto itself,’ says Chris Emmins, founder and chief executive of Kwik Chex.
He said that such ‘review sites’ are able to operate without much regulation because they are categorised as distributors of third-party content rather than publishing their own opinions.
Emmins estimates that between 10 and 20 per cent of reviews posted on TripAdvisor are fake. TripAdvisor says that figure is ‘nonsense plucked out of the air’.
‘A lot of our efforts go into checking content. Occasionally things do slip through the cracks, but it’s incredibly rare,’ says a TripAdvisor spokesman.
Fake reviews are only one issue. Just as serious is the way Trip- Advisor drags its feet over removing old reviews when a business has changed hands or undergone refurbishment.
Victims of this include Maria and James Church — the mother and stepfather of singer Charlotte Church — who took over The Dexby Town House, a B&B near the centre of Cardiff three years ago.
Before they acquired it, the business had operated under a different name and had fallen into disrepair.
One review, written in July 2006, called it ‘down at heel’ and complained that there was ‘no toilet roll and the iron and ironing board were really manky . . . not worth the money, so avoid’.
In the past seven months, the Churches have spent almost £80,000 on modernising and redecorating — and the new reviews on TripAdvisor reflected the improvements.
One, posted last week, described it as ‘an absolute fantastic stay excellent service . . . clean and comfortable’.
However, if you scroll down, the previous negative comments are all still there.
‘We’ve been battling with TripAdvisor for almost a year to have the old reviews removed, but they won’t budge,’ says Mrs Church.
‘We’ve worked so hard improving all the rooms. It makes my blood boil.
TripAdvisor won’t compromise, even though we have given them all the information we can to prove we have made the changes.’
Maria and James Church - the mother and stepfather of singer Charlotte Church - who took over The Dexby Town House, a B&B near the centre of Cardiff three years ago say old TripAdvisor reviews are hurting their business
Last year, the website was told to change the wording on its review page, which claimed that it offered ‘trusted and honest’ opinions, after the Advertising Standards Authority concluded the words were misleading and that ‘reviews could be placed on the site without any form of verification’.
Shortly before that, TripAdvisor had been forced to warn it would penalise businesses that paid for reviews after a Spanish hotel advertised for reviewers for £3 apiece. So who is behind TripAdvisor?
The firm was launched 13 years ago by an American, Steve Kaufer, who remains company boss, above a pizza shop in Newtown, Massachusetts.
Kaufer, 50, has claimed that people were not aware how ‘extensive and sophisticated’ its fraud detections systems are and says: ‘The legitimacy of the reviews is a fundamental part of our value and, ultimately, our success.’
TripAdvisor insists that all reviews pass through its ‘fraud filters’ and that IP addresses (which are used to identify individual computers) and email addresses are all checked via its ‘sophisticated’ algorithm.
Any suspicious reviews are investigated by a team of 100 ‘customer care’ employees. But critics say the website is quicker to dispute reviews that are over-positive than those that are particularly negative.
The story of Ziggy Hussain, who owns an Indian restaurant in Halifax called Ziggy’s Spice House, is instructive.
After receiving excellent reviews, more than 250 were deleted by TripAdvisor because they were based on ‘patterns of suspicious activity’ — causing the restaurant to plummet from No 1 to 122 in Halifax’s rankings.
Mr Hussain is furious and insists that all of the reviews were genuine.
He say his solicitor has been trying to contact TripAdvisor for two months, but has not received a response.
But many hoteliers welcome such feedback because they see TripAdvisor as a form of free advertising.
One big fan is Rob Morgan, chief executive of Bloc Hotels, which has one hotel in Birmingham and is about to open another at Gatwick Airport South.
He says it is ‘brilliant’. Reviews of his hotel have thus far been generally positive. However, it will be interesting to see his reaction if any of his competitors resort to damaging attacks.
Once, a restaurant or a B&B could have hoped to get away with a tough steak, a badly made bed or scuffed carpets in the corridors.
Since the advent of TripAdvisor, the smallest misdemeanours — whether accurately reported or not — are posted online for the world to see.
And these comments have the potential to destroy reputations and livelihoods.
By Mark Palmer