Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Who's REALLY Paying for your Review?

I've got a date to impress next week and he likes steak. I don't know a lot about steak, not being much of a steak-eater. So instead of just asking my friends, who also don't know much about steak, being waist line watching girls who peck at salads, or Twitter (which would rumble my surprise to my date), I decided to turn to the press. Because that's what you do right? You consult the help of people who know about such things. 

Now, who would know about London restaurants? I know, The Evening Standard. Because they're a well-renowned newspaper, right?, They've been going for years, their reviewers are trustworthy. They're not like chancer bloggers, because they've already got loads of influence, and they've probably got a budget to comp their journalists for meals eaten out, right? 

So I went on @ESgoingout's Twitter feed to see if they had any articles on steak. Imagine my surprise when I saw that they had tweeted Goodman, the steak restaurant, this:

Erm, what? Are my eyes deceiving me? The Standard have just publicly announced on Twitter that they want to 'arrange a review' (ie. they don't want to pay for an expensive steak). I don't know what shocked me more: That they'd be so stupid as to be blatant that they would actually ask for a freebie, or they would basically admit to the world, that their so-called 'top ten best' lists are nothing more than a list of the places with which most ease they manage to get a free meal based on their press credential? Call me a little innocent bunny, wet behind the ears and blinking my dopey eyes in the headlamps of the London PR machine about to flatten me, but surely these lists are supposed to be…unbiased? When I read these lists, I assume that the journalists have gone out incognito and eaten at all of these places. I mean, it's important, right? Shouldn't there be a disclaimer at the bottom saying 'I blagged this meal.'? That's what food bloggers have to do. Should a paper not be transparent?

As it stands, now I am fully aware that the Evening Standard try and get freebies as much as the now notorious @londonlarder tweet gate back in May:

(LondonLarder sent this tweet to a large number of London restaurants. Some of them actually allowed them to review for free and LondonLarder's tepid reviews were laughed out of the Food Twitterati as a result, including this brilliant, shaming tweet from @TheThatched:)

The ES clearly didn't take this as a lesson.

A friend at a restaurant (who wishes to remain anonymous) also sent me this, an email from a well known food blog and magazine London Larder (I've blurred the sender because frankly I don't need the death threats).

I am also now aware of all the back-scratching, back-slapping and arse-kissing that goes on in such publications. Ever wondered why the same people are always in these lists? Well, now you know why. Because they help each other out, these chummy restaurants and papers. Not that I'm saying all, of course. But this tweet is objective evidence that it does happen in some Proper Newspapers. The lists are PR-, matey- and How many do it? What's the point of these lists? They're obviously not objective. If it's unbiased, why not go in unannounced and make your mind up by yourself instead of seeing who'll give you the biggest bar tab to drink craft beer whilst you shovel down £50 worth of steak?

It's completely corrupt. One person provides a free meal, the other person gives them publicity, all under the guise of an unbiased independent review, or guide. It's like the classic movie Serpico, about corrupt police, where no criminals are imprisoned because they pay off the policemen with favours and money. With all the newspaper-restaurant schmoozing, who can be sure who's doing who a favour? 

I think it also depends on the person as well. Not everyone can give an objective review if they haven't paid for it. It's a lot more difficult to be truthful and say something was bad when you know that they've provided you with an entire meal. These 'top 10' lists are full of fawning praise and, conveniently, in a Top 10 list, you don't have to include any negatives.

We need more of this

But come on. Don't they have a budget for this kind of thing? Is it ok to use their connections like that? Are they just trying their luck, or was this just a misguided intern left to his or her own devices?

We'll never know, because despite CCing them into my tweet shameing them for being such blaggers, shortly after I posted, it was deleted. And they didn't reply to me. I've always found it weird when businesses try to brush mistakes under the carpet, because it's quite clearly happened, but then, what is their defence? I can't think of a single possible answer they could come up with to justify it.

What I would like to see is this:

All newspapers critics and bloggers should publish the exact circumstances of their review, as some honest ones do. Because without it, all 'reviews', not just Evening Standard ones, are a sham.


  1. What can I say? good luck with the death threats...wish there will be none.
    As a PR person AND blogger, I am very into this issue- I guess ultimately the decision is on the individual (in case of the blogger), his/her sense of decency and being after credibility or just free meals; but it's a different story from magazines. They should either pay for their meals to review or admit their business model is just not working anymore and take it from there.
    My two cents.
    Great post as always

  2. Yeah, I've come to realise more and more that these lists and recommendations in so many papers are not worth the paper they're printed on...

    I believe that I am able to be objective even when comped a meal, however I'm not naive and know that the experience, especially on the service side, may well be better when a restaurant knows I'm in for review. So, whilst virtually all my restaurant reviews certainly include both positives and negatives, I always declare the freebies, so that readers can make up their own mind how much weight they wish to give my opinions.

    Never happens in real journalism. And let's face it, even if a specific meal is paid for properly, there's no knowing that another one on a different date wasn't comped instead.

  3. When offered review meals by PRs I have asked time and time if I can either pay and then be refunded, or if I can go and then produce a letter for the duty manager at the end of the meal saying it is free.

    Both always seem too difficult to arrange. I always declare a freebie and make it clear that the establishment knew I was there to review.

  4. Ah, here we go again. The old chestnut, churned up again for yet more of the same comments and suggestions, attempting to create a problem that doesn't really exist.

    The biggest problem? What's the difference between accepting a comped meal and working for a newspaper / magazine that will refund the cost of the meal? Ultimately, the reviewer isn't paying, so how can you trust their critical faculties?

    Also, the few publications these days that can afford to pay their reviewers' expense claims... how many of those have truly anonymous reviewers? I can think of one. Everybody else... well, I've been in many kitchens where there are photos of Coren, Gill, Williams, Rayner, et al on the wall so that staff can keep an eye out. And I've also met a number of chefs that, suspecting one of the big names was in, have prepared their order several times so that the best example can go out! Yes, they were "paying", but it's not exactly the "everyman" experience, is it?

    I've written restaurant reviews for a number of publications for 13 years now. And yes, the overwhelming majority have been arranged via PRs and comped - mainly because the titles I write for tend to have much smaller budgets than the nationals, (although they too are suffering judging by the above and, with falling revenue, I wonder how long Time Out will be able to continue their policy?). Should those titles stop running reviews because they have limited budgets? I've never contributed a gushing fanboy tribute to a meal. Indeed, I've spent a lot of time - and my own money - eating out, cooking, building up my knowledge of food in parallel to this side of my career. I've never once been asked to write a favourable review by a PR. I've never been asked to pull a terrible review. The two times - in 13 years - that I appeared to have more service than other tables - because I keep an eye out for that sort of imbalance - I've asked that table for a comment and mentioned it in my review.

    The biggest problem with restaurant reviews is that you're reviewing a single moment in time. It's not a film, where the product under scrutiny is the same for every person, it's a unique experience subject to any number of variables. You could do the Frank Bruni thing and visit several times under different guises but that surely is just taking a few plates of food all a little bit too seriously?

    So what's the answer? There isn't one. Because "full disclosure" isn't worth the paper it's written on. I mean, why stop there? Why not insist on palate tests for everyone who wants to write about food? Or whether those people - paid reviewer, blogger, the painfully smug "Food Twitterati" you mention, etc - can identify, say, 14 different types of smoked fish in a blind tasting?

    The only thing you can do is what the sensible people do already: read the people whose writing you like, while keeping an eye on a few reviews to get a general consensus. And then go along anyway and just make your own mind up.



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