Thursday, 2 June 2011


We’re in prison. No, I don’t mean the Consumer Watchdog team although there’s a list of companies and their second-rate lawyers who no doubt wish we were.

It’s a curious thing but the number of legal threats we’ve had has diminished over the last few years. We haven’t had a legal threat in months, the last was in October last year from Hyundai in South Africa, when, very childishly, they threatened us with fire and brimstone for criticising the scandalous treatment a customer received form their Rustenburg dealership. (Click here for our reply. We didn't hear from them again ao I think they realised they were being silly.)

I don’t think this drop in threats is due to use being gentler with crooks, cheaters and liars, or not criticising companies when they deserve it, I think it’s just that even the less respectable companies are realising that threats of legal action have little effect on us, other than to make us laugh out loud and to know we’re onto something.

There’s been an interesting parallel in the UK recently with the disastrous efforts of so-called celebrities like footballer Ryan Giggs to suppress coverage of their indiscretions. They’ve sought and obtained what the Brits call “super-injunctions”; rulings from their Courts preventing the media from detailing their bad behaviour but also, and this is the sneaky bit, even suppressing the coverage of the injunctions. In the past the press have been able to say that they’ve been prevented from publishing something (without saying what) but now they can’t even say that a court action took place.

Needless to say in these internet-enabled days the super-injunctions were comprehensively trashed by the users of Twitter all over the world. A week before the story broke even I knew that it was Giggs who had been to court. Of course the blame must go to Giggs’ lawyers as well as to him. They should have known by now that technologies like Twitter are instant, global and almost unstoppable. Within minutes of an event happening the news can be on the other side of the planet.

Even in our own small way, our blog, Facebook group and Twitter feed get our articles, observations and consumer alerts out to people within seconds. Things have genuinely changed.

The lesson is that the way in the law can be applied is different these days. The internet knows no boundaries outside of China, North Korea and Burma.

So why are we in prison? I think it’s all of us who are imprisoned. I think we imprison ourselves and unfortunately a number of industries do their best to keep us incarcerated.

This came up in a conversation with a colleague when we were discussing why it is that bank customers sometimes put up with such miserable service. I don’t think that it’s all because they’re naturally submissive, lack confidence and don’t know their rights. I think it’s often the very nature of the building they enter.

More often than not when you go in to a bank there is a barrier between you and the person serving you. Sometime that barrier even consists of bars like those in a prison cell. How on earth are you meant to make a “connection” with a bank teller when one of you appears to be behind prison bars?

But I think it’s actually worse than that. Who exactly is the one in prison in that situation? You might immediately assume it’s the bank teller, they’re the one sitting still behind the bars but ask yourself this: which one of you has the most freedom of movement? It’s you that’s the prisoner of the bank when you’re standing at those bars. Couple that with a sometimes endless queue and you can see how anyone entering a bank can quickly become institutionalised. It’s no wonder you end up acting like someone wearing handcuffs and shackled at the ankles. It’s no wonder that many of us can’t pluck up the courage to argue with the prison guards, to complain about the treatment we get and to insist on a better quality of service. It’s also no wonder that many bank tellers act like prison warders, bossing us around, doing their best to get rid of us as quickly as possible and treating us like we’ve committed a crime when we ask them for something.

Of course some of them make it slightly different for their non-cash transactions. When you go to open an account you are often invited to sit as a desk but again that’s only after sitting in an endless queue, waiting patiently for your turn to get the warder’s attention and then again being treated like someone on death row.

I’m not entirely sure what the alternative is and I’m certainly not suggesting that banks should abandon their security measures. I don’t want them robbed any more than they want it themselves. But surely there are imaginative ways in which the feeling of being a guilty convict can be avoided?

I know of one bank, admittedly a rather quiet one, where the bank tellers are almost in a back room. There’s a reception desk and a series of desks where you can talk to someone who knows a bit about what you want. It doesn’t seem quite as sterile and unfriendly as the brand new prison, sorry, bank branch across the mall.

I can sense that a bank employee reading this is going to point out that it’s similar in other industries but no it’s not. I can’t think of any organisation that I enter willingly, and where I have a choice of competitors that behaves this way.

So here’s my suggestion for the week. Go and rent, buy or borrow (but certainly don’t download illegally) a copy of The Shawshank Redemption and see how you can escape from the prison your bank has put you in.

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