The Debate Ragezzzzz...

Another day, another chapter in the same old debate: can you be impartial if someone's invited you along to review a meal? 

You can read all about the latest developments here in Jamie Merrill's piece for The Independent following Jay Rayner's latest outburst over bloggers and yet another heated debate over the same old same old. I try not to be drawn on such things - particularly as the debate surfaces every couple of months or so - but, having been mentioned as, ahem, one of the "well respected" ones (stop sniggering at the back), I thought I might chip in. 

Saying that, I might just leave it to the excellent - and "tricky" - Fiona Beckett for this marvellous post yesterday which, together with Kavey's comments below it, pretty much cover everything. Then again, there are a few points I'd like to raise that haven't quite been covered. 

For example, Kavey mentions travel as an area where we don't expect journalists to cover their costs and write unbiased prose on comped experiences. I'd like to go further. Film critics don't pay to see film previews. Theatre critics don't pay for their tickets. Beauty journalists receive make-up, unguents of all descriptions, hair products, haircuts, massages, etc... and they're not expected to pay for any of it. Music critics receive CDs and gig tickets and yep, all gratis. Home entertainment critics get DVDs and Blu-Rays. Technology critics get sent computers and gadgets to review. I've done all of the above - yes, even the beauty stuff, seriously stop bloody sniggering at the back - so can speak from authority. Are we supposed to thus discount everything they've / I've ever written because, well, you know, it's all bribery and we're clearly in the pay of the PR? What about motoring correspondents? Have we got to take that review with a pinch of salt because the person writing it didn't spend £165,000 on the vehicle in question? So why single out people who write - paid or otherwise - about food? Or are are saying that only multi-millionaires are now allowed to be journalists?

As for the likes of Mr Rayner... I love Jay's writing. I've been a fan for years (to the extent I once offered to let him have my lamb shoulder at a Borough Market butchers when it turned out I'd got the last one and he was second in the queue). But he's not exactly anonymous is he? I've been in a few kitchens where, in anticipation of visits from the nationals' reviewers, they've had A4 photos of Gill, Giles, Jay et al on display to help staff spot them. And, with all due respect to Jay, he's not paying for his own meals either. Well, I assume that's the case - if he's not expensing it all, I apologise. 

As is often cited in these instances, the only reviewer who's generally anonymous is Marina O'Loughlin in The Guardian. This is frequently rolled out as proof that you can take her word as gospel and yes, you can, provided that you like the same things that she does. And, in several cases, I don't. That doesn't stop me reading the column week in, week out though. Similarly I don't drop friends or argue with them because they really liked a restaurant where I had a bad experience or vice versa. Palates are different. Perceptions are different. And experiences in any restaurant several weeks apart can be very different. Christ, in the case of Lanes of London, has it occurred to anyone that the kitchen read Jay's comments and upped their game before Samphire & Salsify came in? Isn't that what a sensible chef would do if they incurred the wrath of a respected reviewer?

The problem in the incident documented in Jamie Merrill's piece is the blagging, a scenario that's a little disturbing. However, it's not limited to bloggers or, indeed, writers of any description. As the article mentions, there are punters who threaten abuse on TripAdvisor and such like if they're not given special treatment. How we stop that is anyone's guess. I guess we could just ignore TripAdvisor? Oh, that's right. Most of us do that already... 

The bottom line though is that the "trust" questioned in this particular version of the debate can exist. You just need to find the voice - or voices - that appear to share your outlook. I've mentioned the notion of PITs - Palates I Trust - before. I don't care if they're a chef talking about their own food, the world's most important paid restaurant reviewer, a member of my own family, a friend, or even someone with zero social skills whose company I can't stand. If they've regularly put me onto something that's good to eat, I'll listen to them. The joy of the internet - be it Twitter, a national newspaper website or yes, a blog - is that it's now so much easier to access so many opinions. The downside is that it's also given some right pillocks a soapbox. Still, that's surely a small price to pay?


Jeanne said…
You reviewed beauty products... sorry, brain still processing that ;) That aside, O Respected Blogger Friend, I just wanted to tell you how immensely this post cheered me, and how much of it I agree with (110% or so...). Well said, and without rancour, which is more than the newspaper article can say.
Kavey said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kavey said…
Glad you agree with my comment on Fiona's piece and so pleased to see you take it further.

Unsurprisingly, I agree with everything you say.

Like you, I quickly work out which professional critics and amateur bloggers and professional bloggers and amateur critics I rate highly and which ones I ignore. It's based, very simply, on whether I find their body of reviews tallies with my own findings for those same places, or not.

Whether that's because we have very different tastes and preferences or because they're not able to be objective in the face of freebies is not really something that enters my mind.

All I care about as a consumer of said reviews is whether what they write leads me to great food.

Likewise, I fully expect those who read my restaurant reviews to decide whether or not my posts have value to them on that same basis. Some of my restaurant visits are comped, some are not. Some are glowing, some are mixed and a few are downright negative. The payment factor doesn't indicate which is which, as becomes evident if you spend even 5 minutes scanning through them.

It's just, such an old old old debate, isn't it?
Danny Kingston said… wha....hurumph *cough* What?.... What has this come up AGAIN? Seriously?

But well said that man. You've hit the nail on the head on a fair few points there. The one thing that also really grates when this whole professional vs blogger ethical bullshit springs up, as it often does, is that the 'paid' writers always seem to assume this elevated moral position. As if they are some sort of guardian, some arbiter to protect the public from themselves. "Trust in me folks for my opinion is divine, I've been doing this far years, I KNOW what I am talking about."

The irony of course is that most food critics fall into the business by accident and they don't really get paid for their opinion, they get paid because they have a witty and entertaining way with words. The amount of times I've read a review and then thought afterwards 'Ah, that was good....I wonder what the food at the restaurant is like?'

Of course, at the root of this vacuous and stupid debate is that a whole a bunch of pipsqueaks, namely bloggers, have come along pissed on their very cosy chips.

Stupid twats who write to restaurants to get freebies in exchange for nice qlowing reviews notwithstanding, the fact remains that some bloggers do a very good job when it comes to reviewing. At least the ones that I read do.

Anyway, I am starting to run out of steam here and am feeling sleepy again. Don't bother waking me up when all this hoohaah kicks off again.......night night


Goodness, you're absolutely right- this debate has a rather large whiff of déjà vu. In complete agreement, plus I also reckon that most people look at a variety of sources these days before making up their mind, be in hotel, restaurant or a film, even if one review has the hall prints of a PR positive spin on it
The irony is of course, the 'anonymous' bit. I mean, seriously...I've worked in the restaurant business for over 20 years and if your managers & front of house team don't recognise who's who from the bank of well known restaurant critics, (that yes, is posted on the staff room door!) then god help them!

My policy is that if I can't write a positive review, then I write the restaurant a report as to why. So either way they benefit, hopefully.
Well said - and glad you raised the point about travel, beauty etc for free. There are bloggers who gave up their day job to travel round the world for free and everyone just seems to accept that as being a right on free spirit.
There are knobs out there but give the reader some credit - you can spot people who only eat out for free and give glowing reviews a mile off. They food no one.

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