How French suffered 'death by blog'

The rise of the weblog should make public figures even more careful about what they say, legal experts are warning.

Neil French and Nancy Vonk have found themselves in the unwitting positions of spokespeople on the issue of the female role in the workplace, following a media storm triggered by some ill-thought-out comments and a weblog.

Both assert that they never thought their words would trigger such a global sensation. Indeed, French says he has had numerous job offers "from some really big advertising agencies" as well as conversations about book deals.

"Obviously I've turned the book offers down. I really don't have strong views on this topic. I'm not the champion of the downtrodden man like people seem to think I am. Maybe it's the notoriety they want," he said.

French's decision to label female creative directors "crap" at a Toronto conference two weeks ago inspired Vonk - the chief creative officer at Ogilvy Toronto - to write a weblog criticising his views.

French's seniority at WPP (he has a roving creative role and the job title Godfather on his business card) and the outrageousness of his comments have led to a media storm, particularly in the UK. French became the WPP global creative director in 2002 after five years as the worldwide creative director at the group's Ogilvy & Mather network.

Vonk, meanwhile, says she has received "millions of e-mails and letters" thanking her for what she said, and others trying to find out what she is planning next.

"I hope my comments have helped shine a light on the problem that this type of thinking is very prevalent in this industry, but I don't think I am some sort of crusader on the subject and I will just wait to see what happens," she said.

French, who has now resigned from WPP, described his situation as "death by blog".

He said: "The story travelled a million miles from where it started. One quote has been picked up and embellished until it is a case of Chinese whispers."

According to Michael Burd, the head of employment law at Lewis Silkin, the instances of senior public figures getting into trouble as a result of things they have said being commented on in weblogs is rising all the time.

"There have been a couple of occasions recently where this has happened.

It is now so much easier for people to air their views that people in positions of authority have to be prepared for the backlash if they are going to make inflammatory comments."

He added: "Also, because of the public way this story came out, it really was impossible for WPP to keep French on without opening themselves up to discrimination claims in the future."

The story started when Vonk was moved to write a blog on the website following a dinner where French, who has built a reputation for incendiary public speaking, said that he believed women do not make top executives because they are "crap".

In the blog, she claimed French's opinion that women will inevitably wimp out and "go and suckle something" represented the innermost thoughts of legions of men in the upper ranks of the ad business. French denies making the "suckle" comment.

Once posted, the blog received thousands of hits as people added their thoughts on the issue.

French's already notorious career and public image (he was once a bullfighter and the manager of the rock band Judas Priest) helped to push the story into the public domain and on to the front page of the Evening Standard last Friday.

- Leader, page 24; Opinion, page 25.


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