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PostPosted: Tue May 10, 2005 1:00 am 
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Smear campaign (10/5/2005)

Taxi Driver Online must be increasing in influence, at least if the continued attempts to discredit us are anything to go by.

Our recent article concerning an apparent witch-hunt against Taxi Driver Online has had little effect; while some of the wilder allegations made elsewhere on the internet seem to have abated slightly, there are still one or two websites which seem to exist mainly to discuss what's happening on TDO, not to mention making apparently orchestrated attempts to discredit us. While the numerous misrepresentations made about TDO elsewhere are unlikely to influence anyone but the most gullible or malicious (at least if they also read this site as well), a more important manifestation of this witch-hunt mentality is arguably a recent article by Derek Cummins, assistant editor of Taxi Talk magazine.

The article, entitled 'It's that verification thing', is essentially a critique of the anonymity of those behind TDO and those who post on our discussion forum.

Mr Cummins's article consists mainly of a parody of the anonymity and pseudonyms of people posting on internet chat rooms and suchlike. This is mildly amusing (but grossly overdone, and thus ultimately extremely tedious), but the relevance of it all to TDO is never really made clear, presumably because there is no real relevance at all. What Mr Cummins does effectively is to use the now well know arguments against the dangers of relying on information provided over the internet in certain contexts (which may be, for example, a paedophile posing as a teenager in a chat room) and jumble them up with a diatribe against TDO in an attempt to discredit us.

But Mr Cummins doesn't actually say how TDO's anonymity discredits us - his presumption seems to be that anonymity per se is wrong, and to that extent TDO must have some kind of malicious intent. Perhaps Mr Cummins hopes that no one will notice that this rather superficial critique of anonymity actually tells us nothing of substance.

Our arguments obviously contain many facts and opinions, but we cannot really see how where they came from is really relevant. What if, to use Mr Cummins's caricature, TDO is really run by a 'Swedish au pair passing herself off as a 22 stone Scunthorpe lorry driver'? Would this have any real bearing on the arguments that we proffer? Anyone who has read the pieces on our website should quickly realise that they do not depend on the personal circumstances of the author; they are opinions, and it should go without saying that opinions can hardly be verified. The vast majority of facts that we use are in the public domain, and we either provide references for those facts or welcome any challenge to these facts, as always.

More specifically, Mr Cummins misrepresents TDO in numerous ways. First, he claims that TDO is an 'body purporting to be an official trade organisation'. Precisely what the word 'official' means here is unclear (what's the difference between an official and unofficial trade organisation?), but quite where and when TDO has ever claimed to be a trade organisation is not clear, and seems about as credible as claiming that Taxi Talk magazine purports to be an official trade organisation, but clearly it does not. Indeed, the magazine claims to be 'The independent voice for the licensed trade', which is a lot closer to claiming to be a trade organisation than TDO has ever done.

Second, Mr Cummins claims that TDO has sent 'every regulated council a list of plate values'. We have categorically not. The document that Mr Cummins refers to (and which contains a lot more than plate values) can be found on our website, but our page linking to this document clearly states that it is contributed, and there has never been anything on the document itself attributing it to TDO.

Third, Mr Cummins states that the 'main man' behind TDO appears to be 'JD'. This is incorrect; 'JD' is registered on our discussion forum, as is Mr Cummins, openly using the pseudonyms 'deecee' and 'Non D. Plume'. However, there is nothing to suggest that 'JD' is any more the main man behind TDO than 'deecee' or 'Non D. Plume'. We have certainly vociferously denied any such suggestion, as it is untrue.

Fourth, Mr Cummins then states that TDO and 'JD' are the same entity. This is more bizarre still, since even the most malicious of those spreading falsehoods about TDO do not think this. Indeed, a few days before his article was posted on the internet, 'Non D. Plume' referred to 'JD' and TDO as different people, so presumably Mr Cummins has now changed his mind on that.

Fifth, while Mr Cummins is correct insofar as he claimed that 'JD' compiled the list of plate values, his claim that in compiling the relevant information he 'asked forum members to post in how much a plate is in their authority, therefore councils up and down the country have been told the plate values in a particular area on the evidence of Jaw D. Lad or Snake Hips McGraw or some other daft username', is incorrect.

Yes, forum members were asked for any relevant information on plate values (and were told why this information was being sought), but we have been reliably informed that none of this information was relied on in isolation to ascertain the published values, and other figures were obtained from credible sources to substantiate and verify any proffered initially. Indeed, most of the information sourced only from our forum turned out to be unreliable. As regards the published values, no one, least of all Mr Cummins, has yet to dispute the figures in any substantial way. Of course, obtaining reliable information on plate premiums is not easy, but we feel that the methodology used by the document's author was sufficiently robust to justify publication on TDO, and indeed feel that the fact that these figures have went largely unchallenged vindicates our stance.

Sixth, Mr Cummins speculates as to the position of those behind TDO, claiming that they could be cab drivers or PH drivers or a Croatian schoolboy trying out his English, inter alia. In fact, the 'About Us' section of our website clearly states that those behind TDO are 'working drivers, both taxi and private hire', and this has been re-iterated on numerous occasions.

Seventh, Mr Cummins then links TDO with an article in a Brighton newspaper which was critical of the local authority's restricted taxi numbers policy. TDO had nothing whatsoever to do with this article.

Of course, it is quite open for Mr Cummins to doubt what we say in this regard, but in his article he proffers these matters more as indisputable fact than mere speculation, and offers no evidence to support these assertions.

All this might seem a bit frivolous in many ways, but as someone who like us takes an interest in the law (to that extent it's surprising that other websites are not accusing Mr Cummins of being a solicitor, but of course he's on the wrong side!) Mr Cummins will no doubt be aware of the recent 'Motley Fool' defamation case, where damages were awarded to an aggrieved party relating to defamatory remarks made by an anonymous contributor to an internet message board. Thus it's clear that the courts do not consider the often anarchic world of such message boards to be beyond the law, and any prudent contributor to or commentator on such mediums should act accordingly.

Amidst all the nonsense in Mr Cummins's article there are also a couple of substantive points regarding the Brighton newspaper article. As regards fare competition, Mr Cummins asks: 'why didn’t you mention that our fares are fixed by the council and we are all metered and therefore we all charge the same rates, and before you say you can charge less than the meter (and always have been able to) the reality is that unless it’s an ‘involved’ job, it’s pay what’s on the meter or there’s the bus stop over there'.

Of course, Mr Cummins, in his erroneous assumption that TDO was behind the Brighton article, asks the above question of us. However, we should re-iterate that we do not agree with the encouragement of fare competition in the trade, as we made clear in an article over a year ago. That article also makes it clear that we consider fare discounting to be widespread in some areas. Moreover, we made the same point in our Myth and Reality paper, and we also quoted from an article in Private Hire and Taxi Monthly which said, re fare negotiations in Weymouth and Portland:

It should be pointed out that due to fierce competition the vast majority of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles charge considerably less than the set rates and charges vary from company to company.

Thus if Mr Cummins thought that TDO was behind the Brighton article, then why didn't he mention what we had said about fare discounting; again, the most charitable answer to this is that his article was poorly researched, and that his perception of 'the reality' relates only to his own experience and not to the wider UK trade.

While there is in fact an element of fare discounting in Brighton as it is, there is nothing to suggest that it could not end up like Weymouth and Portland. Of course, we do not want it to end up like that, for the kind of reasons we proffered in our article of last year, but in theory there is no reason why this could not happen. Also, there are factors, which are perhaps more prevalent in larger cities, which would probably mean that widespread fare discounting in Brighton was an unlikely scenario even with derestriction of taxi numbers, but there seems little point in discussing this in detail here, but the essential point is that Mr Cummins's view on fare discounting is not wholly accurate.

Mr Cummins then reverts to his fall back argument against de-restriction, namely taxi rank space in Brighton. He does have a point here, but of course allowing taxi journeymen to run their own vehicle would not have any effect on rank space. Likewise, allowing private hire drivers (who adhere to the same standards as the mainstream taxi trade in Brighton, charge the same metered fares and work from the same offices) to run a taxi vehicle won't have as much effect on rank space as the numbers suggest, since most will probably continue to do mainly pre-booked work, as most of the current taxi trade do at the moment.

And, to re-iterate a point made to Mr Cummins on our discussion forum in relation to Liverpool, but which he has failed to address, if rank space in Brighton is such a problem then why is there a 'shortage' of taxi drivers and thus a place for anyone who is awarded a taxi driver's badge? And why do the taxi despatch offices in Brighton have no problem in taking on private hire cars, which push more taxis on to the streets, compounding any problem with rank space?

The answer is, of course, the usual self-serving, 'do as I say, not as I do' ethos so ably demonstrated by those with a vested interest in restricted taxi numbers.

And why isn't it that long ago since Brighton and Hove Council imposed a late-night weekend surcharge of £1 to encourage more taxis to work, if rank space is such a problem? Of course, the rational answer is that rank space is not a problem at these times, and taxi undersupply is. But this illustrates a basic economic principle, so why have daytime fares in Brighton been at London levels for several years now which, combined with the ability to operate cheap-to-run saloon cars such as the Skoda Octavia, is bound to put pressure on rank space?

While this question is clearly rhetorical, since neither Mr Cummins nor anyone else will answer it, the results of this are plain to see - ballooning plate premiums which surely can't be far from the £50,000 mark. (Note that when the Brighton newspaper article was reproduced in Taxi Talk (March 2005) the cited plate premium of £45,000 had been changed to 'a substantial amount', and the headline had been changed from 'Taxis among UK's dearest' to 'Expensive fares? No not really!' While we have no problem with Taxi Talk putting its own spin on these things, to castigate us for subjective and presenting a distorted view of the trade (see below) really is a bit rich!).

Mr Cummins then comes back to the anonymity argument. When he made this argument on our discussion forum, we made the point that his Taxi Talk publication often carries anonymous articles and letters, including around half-a-dozen in the most recent edition (then the March 2005 issue). In the current article Mr Cummins makes the point that these are 'cab drivers talking to other cab drivers' and they 'do not go into the outside world claiming some sort of legitimacy'. Mr Cummins cites 'Count Bartelli' and the 'Reiver' to support his case.

Err, hello? Mr Cummins conveniently omits to mention a third example from his March 2005 issue that we put to him, and we wonder why? Presumably because the piece in question was entitled 'An open letter to licensing officers in regulated areas although those in deregulated areas should take note', written by 'Your local TOA'.

There are numerous examples in Taxi Talk that are clearly directed towards people like licensing officers and councillors, for example the recent reproduction of an address made by SCATA's Dougie Friswell to Chelmsford's licensing committee.

Also interesting is that Taxi Talk is subtitled 'the independent voice for the licensed trade'. Surely this 'voice' isn't just directed towards other drivers, in which case it would be a very strange 'voice for the licensed trade' indeed.

Indeed, in the September 2003 issue editor Dave Millward said:

"I am also delighted to add that the credibility of this publication - in its history - has never been so vigorous and enterprising, so much so, Taxi "talk" Magazine is now well received and is certainly 'talked' about up and down the country, not only by licensed taxi and private hire drivers, but by other discerning and influential, people, such as government ministers and members of parliament."

Moreover, several articles and letters in that edition concerned an article by Bernie May and a response from Roy Ellis of the PCO, who can't be a cab driver, because editor Dave Millward underlined this very fact in his editorial!

Thus Mr Cummins is surely being disingenuous; his claim that the contents of his magazine are just cab drivers talking to other cab drivers is about as plausible as claiming that anything sent anonymously to local authorities is just intended to be read only by the cleaners or the office cat. Taxi Talk is a magazine claiming to be a voice for the trade and that anyone can subscribe to; it's not some kind of confidential document or even a trade association publication.

More interesting still is Mr Cummins' description of regular columnist 'the Reiver' as a 'wind up merchant par excellence'. Considering that this column in the February 2005 issue of Taxi Talk generated several responses published in the subsequent issue, this is an astonishing claim indeed - it seems that the Reiver is not intended to be taken seriously at all, but given that the responses to his article were up to two pages long then we wonder if these respondents were aware of the true nature of the original article?

Then we are accused by this hardly-top secret publication of 'going into the outside world' and 'claiming some sort of legitimacy'. So the implication is that TDO is illegitimate? But what rules have we broken, what precisely have we done wrong, except exercise our democratic right to freedom of expression, which in fact seems to be what Mr Cummins has a problem with, presumably because we proffer a viewpoint at odds with his own.

Mr Cummins then claims that we present a 'highly subjected (some would say distorted) view of the trade'. On the assumption that he means 'subjective', then it would be useful if Mr Cummins could point us towards an objective view of the trade in his magazine, because we have yet to read one.

And if he thinks our view of the trade is distorted, then why not make the case for this rather than presenting a distorted view of TDO to his readers? Moreover, while our pieces may proffer a particular viewpoint, we feel that the real distortion is in many of the articles published by Taxi Talk, with the recent 'Open letter' piece being a classic of this genre, which was why we spent some time dissecting it.

Of course, Taxi Talk does include many pieces presenting a view of the trade, including the piece written by 'Your local TOA'. Aka Derek Cummins aka The Reiver aka Dave Millward aka Count Bartelli aka Wayne Casey aka Name and address supplied aka Captain Cab aka .....
No, only joking, we'll stick to the facts and leave the supposition to Mr Cummins!

However, since Mr Cummins seems to like largely groundless speculation of this kind, in view of things like writing style, subject matter, the arguments made and other idiosyncrasies, would we be correct in saying that the writer of anonymous pieces like 'Error of Judgement' (December 2004), 'An open letter...' (March 2005) and the various Reiver columns shares the same identity as one of your regular columnists? At least you can be sure that pieces written in the name of TDO are consistently authored, and do not use various pseudonyms just to deceive readers or even wind them up - heaven forbid!

So Mr Cummins has made several false claims regarding TDO, has been very selective in the presentation of his evidence, has implied that we are illegitimate, has bandied words like 'distorted' about without substantiation, appears to have done very little research for his article and indeed seems unaware of what is even being written in his own magazine.

It's ironic that Mr Cummins prefaced is piece by exhorting readers to "always verify a story, and crosscheck the source if its at all possible, and I like to thing I take this ethos into writing for Taxi Talk to be as accurate as possible".

Indeed, in telling us a year and a half ago how his magazine's credibility had never been higher editor Dave Millward told us:

"This is because of the professionalism we adopt in our editorial policy - yes you've got it, we speak the truth, yet again, as stated in last month's editorial, in some cases the truth hurts."

However, in our opinion Mr Cummins's present article is a shabby piece of journalism consisting primarily of mud-slinging, and the most substantive point that he manages to raise is in relation to anonymity.

But reading through the misrepresentation, highly repetitive attempts at humour and other flannel, Mr Cummins makes no substantive case about anonymity whatsoever.

Indeed, what can be said without any doubt is that if we had been doing what we've been doing, but making a case that Mr Cummins had agreed with, then he wouldn't have batted an eyelid. But given the double standards demonstrated by him in relation to restricted taxi numbers (ably demonstrated by his disdainful and imperious reference to those who seek a level playing field in this regard as 'wannaplates') then his double standards in relation to free speech are perhaps unsurprising.

It is for the readers of anything that TDO has published to decide whether anonymity undermines the credibility thereof; unless Mr Cummins can make any substantive point in this regard then perhaps he would be better advised to say nothing. We have endeavoured only to tell the truth and make our opinions known. We have endeavoured to act legally at all times, and remain subject to the law of the land. We will not allow witch-hunts and smear campaigns to undermine this.

Of course, Mr Cummins and our various defamers seem to proceed on the basis that if they throw enough mud, then some of it will stick, and no doubt Mr Cummins in particular also relies on the fact that his readership is no doubt significantly greater than our own.

Interesting also in this regard is that a prominent Taxi Talk columnist has recently taken up with our chief defamers on an internet discussion forum run by them, thus the extent of this conspiracy is arguably becoming clearer by the day. Indeed, a few days before publication in Taxi Talk, Mr Cummin's article was somewhat ironically disseminated on that website by a 'Mr T' and a 'Captain Cab', with the latter also recently complaining that his identity (which he himself had effectively disclosed) had been revealed on our website. Clearly Mr Cummins does not mind embracing the new technology and using anonymous contributors on the internet when he considers it to his advantage!

Mr Cummins also offers us the right to reply in his magazine as long as this is under our real names - so it's Spartan Abstemious, the Reiver and Your Local TOA for some, but good old TDO must 'use your own name'. Err, no thanks Mr Cummins. But if people are at all interested in the facts about TDO then they will no doubt seek them on here. As for the rest, they can continue to read you magazine in blissful ignorance. In any case, we would prefer not to have anything published in Taxi Talk, lest readers think it may be a wind-up or suchlike!

Of course, Mr Cummins is welcome to send us a response and we will publish it on our website, whether it be further information on plate values, a proper critique of anonymity or reasoned argument on any other substantive trade issue. And, as always, Mr Cummins or anyone else is free to post on our message board, whether anonymously or not, and we also welcome any private discussion by email, and we usually respond to either message board or email enquiries within 24 hours, a level of accountability and openness simply not possible with conventional paper-based publications. However, we should reiterate that we draw the line at factually inaccurate and/or defamatory material.

Although we have clearly always disagreed with Taxi Talk magazine in relation to some of the issues in the trade, we have had no particular quarrel with the editorial team. However, we cannot allow articles like Mr Cummins's to go unanswered. Mr Cummins says that the current article will probably not be the last 'pop', he's had at TDO. We politely ask Mr Cummins to think very carefully about what he writes in future, but he should bear in mind that, however much his current article impresses much of his readership, we did not pick a fight with him.

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Taxi Driver Online
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