I don’t normally use my blog as a platform for anything more than my restaurant and bar reviews, but something is happening in the world of food media that is pissing me off. Not enough to raise my blood pressure but enough that I have felt the need to respond.
Jay Rayner who writes restaurant reviews for The Observer has taken it upon himself to use his Twitter feed as a bully pulpit to attack food bloggers, accusing blogger Samphire and Salsify of lacking ‘ethics’ as well as a plethora of Twitter sniping. Now Jay is a big bloke who was possibly used to throwing his weight around in the school playground as a child, but in the brave new world of social media being a big lump and his famous mum’s darling delinquent boy simply won’t cut it.
Why are Rayner and his colleague John Walsh at The Independent getting their knickers in a twist? The key question seems to be one of trust. Can you trust the reviews of a food blogger such as myself who sometimes gets their meals and drinks ‘comped’ (provided for free) by the restaurant? This simple question opens up a complex set of issues.
The first thing to consider is whether any review can be considered accurate and objective. Reviewers whether in print or digital media provide radically different readings of the food and experience at a restaurant based on their prejudices. It’s one person’s opinion and can never be considered objective when personal taste and the delivery of service and food can vary so greatly .
The second issue is to do with the money thing. Like many food bloggers I pay for some meals and not for others. Rayner’s expenses are paid for by The Observer and the experience of not paying for a meal out of your own pocket is different to when you are paying for it yourself whether the restaurant is comping it or your employer is covering the bill. If a blogger gets a free meal then there should be full disclosure. If this has happened then readers are media savvy enough to know what they are getting. If there isn’t disclosure then the blogger is fair game for any criticism thrown at them. Moreover if a blogger tries to hustle a restaurant into comping them then that is simply bad manners. What is more insidious is someone like Rayner who has a mainstream media profile and who’s face is known to every restaurant manager in the country. Do you honestly believe that in most places he is getting the same food and service that normal punters get? It may still not be great but it will be the very best that the front of house and kitchen can manage. I work in the restaurant trade as a supplier and have seen this happen many times. It doesn’t have to be like this. Marina O’Loughlin at The Guardian keeps both her anonymity and her integrity intact.
The third thing to think about is to try to understand what bloggers and print journalists are trying to do with their journalism. Most bloggers I know treat it as a benign hobby, a bit of fun where they can share their passion and enthusiasm for food and going out. Some are well informed and others hopelessly ignorant. If they are approached by a PR to review a restaurant the ‘freebie’ is seen as compensation for the several hours of work that goes into putting the piece together. If they then choose to present a review that is unrealistically flattering then their readers will soon find out; but it is no worse than the feature articles writers like Rayner will do on high-profile restaurants or chefs which often push the gush factor. Bloggers can also offer restaurants that don’t have the media hype that surround the high profile openings or are out of town or simply just old news the chance to create or refresh their PR profile which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. There will also sometimes be a level of detailed analysis with accompanying photos that you would never find in print journalism.
Why is this? Well, journalists have to create entertainment to keep their audience as well as for themselves. In the blurb for Rayner’s Guardian Masterclass on writing a column it states that his reviews ‘are used as a springboard to discuss sex, death, love, war, disease, theatre, film and politics.’ No mention of food but I’m sure we are all grateful for the wise one sharing his thoughts on these disparate topics.
What is the real reason that Rayner and some of his colleagues are so het up about bloggers? The truth is that they are scared. Scared that in a digital environment where so much print journalism is unprofitable, that their jobs and lifestyle may well soon be on the line. So it’s easier to attack the fake threat and soft target of the blogosphere rather than address the inconsistencies of their own position. The reality is that there is an ecosystem that we are all part of and the readers aren’t as thick as Jay would like to believe. It’s really boring to have to write this piece but sometimes someone has to stand up to the lout with the big gob. Jay-get over yourself already…
Neon art from Jason Atherton’s Little Social