About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Friday, December 04, 2009
Nose In The Trough
No doubt many of you are well aware through the twitterverse of the lengthy Stephen Downes essay in Meanjin (subsequently on Crikey) and the short sharp retort from John Lethlean that also appeared on Crikey.

The essence of what Downes wrote was that it is inappropriate for journalists writing on food, especially restaurants, to have any relationship (including attending launches) with those they wish to write about, as this connection may favourably taint the review, naming Lethlean et al, as having enjoyed all the perks of the job and then publishing reviews, which he claims may be less than objective.

Lethlean's reply could perhaps best be summed up by people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

What made this of interest to me, apart from the stoush factor, was that reviewing products on this blog was exercising my mind recently, especially reviews of products sent to me.

I'm well aware that there is a strong divergence of opinion on the matter amongst bloggers, a bit like vegetarians vs omnivores, with some accepting no freebies and others happy to talk about whatever comes their way. The question is, in accepting a product are we seduced into writing a more positive review than might otherwise be the case if we had used our own dime to purchase it?

My opinion is that I don't think so. What seems more likely is that one will actually publish reviews on items received, as there is an innate sense of obligation; someone went to the trouble of sending something, I'd better at least talk about it. This is exactly what the PR's want; their motto, after all, is that there is no such thing as bad press - though good press will set their hearts all a flutter.

What I've noticed about my reviews is that they are usually positive on a subject, that's because my readers are exactly the same as my friends, when something is good, I want to talk about it, to share in my discovery, whether I've paid for it or not.

If it's not up to expectation, then I don't want to post, because the expectation is mine, not yours. Some things have to be discovered for yourself. One man's poison is another man's pleasure.

I think Stephen Downes was right to question the trough from which he and his colleagues feed, perhaps how he said it was clumsy or maybe that's just how he feels. There is no doubt times have changed markedly from when his first review was published decades ago. But someone has to ask, since when did a reviewer need to ring up a restaurant to see if he'll be let in?

Seems a little meek.
  posted at 9:30 pm

At 12:34 am, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Really well summarised Neil. I feel the same about reviewing free products. To me, if something is good, I normally want to tell others anyway, so blogging about it is no different. If something is not to my liking, I won't write about it.

At 3:42 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Neil. I read Downes article & Lethleans response & found them both entertaining.

Could it be that there just isnt enough room for this many critics operating within Australia? Is this about territory?
Add to the fact thats its pretty hard to eek out a living as a freelance food writer these days so perhaps schmoozing at all these launches & such is just a way to get some food in their starving bellies!

Downes snipes at the Age food section being elitist might ring true however it is called 'Epicure' not 'Abstemious' for good reason. The Sun always
shouts out about its higher readership over the Age but I'm sure its gets on their goat that when it comes to most hospitality jobs, food articles, reviews & gossip, its the Age that has the kudos.

On th issue of critics though,
I couldn't help but think that Downes was ignoring the most obvious point of all, that any reviewing is always subjective anyway, whether you're familiar/friends with the chef/restaurateur or not.
Also why does he always find it neccesary to remind readers of his foodie credentials? Many people have lived & eaten well in France, what makes this so pertinent?

Dont want to be snipey but 'asking' to come to a particular restaurant might seem like he's giving the proprietors fair warning but it could also be seen as a means to cement his standing as Numero Uno food critic

At 9:13 pm, Blogger Zoe said...

It must be hard for a professional food critic these days, what with all these gifted amateurs about - I understand some of them are even quite familiar with a variety of foreign foods ;)

At 10:53 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi thanh, it's about being true to yourself isn't it? If you genuinely like something, it always shines through your words.

Hi steve, had a laugh about the schmoozing, you might be onto something!

You make some good points about the eternal battle between the two papers and if the Sun wants to really compete, they ought to commission more food related articles.

No problem about your last point, but having been out with him on one of his reviews, I can tell you that he loves anonymity, one of his conditions was that I make the booking. I reckon he only calls personally ahead to restaurants when he feels he might get thrown out. To me, this shows a lack of courage to cop it on the chin, protecting his image seems more important than getting on with the job...any way you can.

Hi zoe, I am familiar with a variety of foreign foods, sometimes I can even pronounce their names! Not all the time mind you.


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