It was Lawrence of Brula and Joe Allen who alerted me to the argument raging on Twitter last week, involving Jay Rayner and others, about food bloggers and the ethics of freebies: can you write an unbiased review of a meal if you haven’t paid for it? I thought I was a fairly frequent visitor to Twitter – I check in several times a day – but frankly at the rate Tweets fall through the great worldwide web, you’d have to be permanently attached to be sure of catching everything going on. And then, of course, there is the question of photographs and I do know that some chefs are now banning them in their restaurants.
Actually, Lawrence telling me about the Twitter war wasn’t such a surprise. There’s been a certain amount of ill-feeling between the ‘professionals’ and the bloggers of the food world for some time. What was a surprise – and even a shock – was interviewing Amy Seton about The Birmingham Whisky Club a couple of weeks ago and her telling me about some bloggers who were holding restaurants to ransom. Any blogger who is deluded enough to think they are so important they can bribe restaurants for a freebie to give a good review and threaten to write a bad one if they’re not given a free meal has the emotional maturity of a toddler throwing a wobbly in the corner of the nursery. Just who do they think they are! And actually, isn’t it illegal to blackmail people?
This is a sad state of affairs. There are a lot of very good food bloggers out there as well as some bad ones, just as there are some excellent professional food critics and some bad ones. It’s been great to see food bloggers earning more and more respect in the food world and this kind of nonsense about freebies and threats doesn’t just give bad press to the bloggers involved, but to all bloggers. Nor does it say a lot for restaurants who would ‘pay’ for a good review; a ‘freebie’ is really ‘pay’ – we’re only talking semantics here.
Blogging is a fact of life in our fast-moving media-dominated world. And it’s not just bloggers who write reviews now but everyone who writes up their eating or holidaying experience on TripAdvisor or Top Table or any of the other review sites; even online newspapers and magazines invite the public to leave a comment. Everyone is in on the act. But I like to think Joe Public knows a good blogger from a bad one. And does one bad review really bring down a hotel or restaurant? When I’m booking a hotel I often check in on TripAdvisor and usually what I find is a mix of good and bad reviews so you just have to balance it out and make up your own mind. And even in the professional world of paid-up, well-respected restaurant critics, there is often disagreement. For instance, I read a bad review of Balthazar in Covent Garden by Jay Rayner in the Observer the day before I went there – and had a nice meal – while Tracey Macleod wrote a very good one in the Independent. You might try a restaurant out because you read a good review but you won’t go back if you don’t enjoy it. If you read a bad review, I guess you might not try a new restaurant but then this has been a fact of life in the theatre and film world for decades. Bad reviews everywhere bring people down. But that doesn’t mean you stop people writing reviews.
There’s an unhappy assumption amongst some people that bloggers are just over-enthusiastic amateurs who write from no real knowledge or experience. Well, yes, some are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t write entertaining, fun-to-read blogs. That doesn’t mean they don’t know a good meal from a bad meal. And reading a food blog isn’t generally, I think, so much about the actual review but the pleasure of reading a well-written piece about something you’re interested in. A lot of food blogs, however, are written by people with relevant experience, often chefs. For instance, I love pastry chef Jurgen Willems’ blog The Road to Hell and Sweetness.
I started my blog for fun and because I’ve always been passionate about good food and travel, and I love to research, read, try out new recipes and restaurants and am always trying to extend my knowledge. It’s great to have a vehicle to share this and get feedback from others with the same interest. And I like writing so it’s a way of getting in touch with my creative side. It’s only because I’ve continued to steadily build up a bigger audience and I’ve had (unpaid) support from some great people, from local restaurateurs and food shops to chefs who’ve kindly allowed me to interview them, that I carry on. I started the blog as a ‘feel good’ activity: I only wanted to write good reviews. As time went on I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I only wrote glowing reviews so some less good ones started creeping in. I have a kind of ‘fair game’ policy though: if I have a disappointing meal at a big name restaurant then I feel it’s fair game to say so; if I have a bad meal at a new – particularly local – independent restaurant I just don’t write. I still prefer to write nice, enthusiastic reviews – and I do actually go to restaurants sometimes and not write a thing!
I quite often get requests from people who say they love my blog (good PR here) and would I write about their restaurant, their cafe, their hotel, their new kitchen gadget, their homemade chutney or whatever – for a freebie. I’ve always said no. I explain that I always first visit a restaurant secretly and write up what I really think about it. If I write about some good product, it’s because I happen to have bought it, thought it good and think I’ll share with my readers. There have been a couple of things recently where I’m in discussion while trying to sort out whether I can be true to the blog as I want it to be and that they’re things I’m genuinely interested in and if I end up writing about them, I’ll make the connection clear. I do sometimes write by invitation to support people who have supported me, but that’s always started with me writing about them completely independently and I’m already convinced that what they do is good.
It’s after I’ve published a review – generally only the good ones! – that people might agree to an interview; they might offer me a free meal; they might give me a free glass of fizz whenever I go in. But these are ‘after the event’ freebies: they are thank-yous. I guess I’m just happier doing that but as long as a blogger is open about their meal being free (and I see this happening in some of the blogs I follow) and they can still write an honest report, is it really so far removed from the professionals? Who, of course, don’t pay for their meals. Much of it is personal. Frankly, I just don’t want to be put on the spot by accepting a ‘free’ meal and then agonising over writing a bad review if I haven’t enjoyed it. But many people wouldn’t have a problem, so good on them. I think bribing restaurants over writing a good review for a free meal is abhorrent and unacceptable. But most food bloggers are good people who are passionate about good food and love writing about it. And in their sharing, they bring pleasure and interesting information.
Oh and those photos! I’ve been taking photos of food for as long as I remember and certainly far, far longer than I’ve been writing a blog. If I’m paying for a meal and want to photograph the plate, then really, why the hell shouldn’t I take a photo. But I do try to be discreet. I use a small digital camera or, for impromptu posts, my iPhone, and I try hard not to annoy my neighbouring diners.
When it comes to bloggers v. the professionals; when it comes to the question of freebies or paying for your meal, you can promote good behaviour and good professional etiquette, you can encourage talent, but you can’t police it all and in the end, it’s going to be mostly the good bloggers and good professionals who will attract a following. And everyone has the right to choose to read or not; to agree or not. So I really hope you choose to go on reading my blog because I definitely love writing it for you!