Saturday, 19 April 2008

Knowing your Gills from your Giles

Being a restaurant reviewer is great work for those who can get it. For the thrill of responding to the dinner party ice-breaker ‘so what do you do?’ if nothing else.

As with any reviewing job, it is always more interesting for both reader and critic when the latter has not enjoyed himself or does not like what he is evaluating. We picture the critic battling through his tough wild boar and so-so soufflé, then whipping out his Dictionary of Underwhelmed over coffee to plan his assault.

It must be dispiriting knowing your audience is hoping their avatar will have to endure indifferent service from waiters, flat champagne and overcooked sea urchin. No one wishes the worst on war reporters after all.

Coming from a writer whose job involves excess, Giles Coren’s rant on English breakfasts this week gave people something to sink their teeth into. The Independent named a relatively tame sentence in his polemic ("You never see a person with a degree eating a fry-up, do you?") as ‘inflammatory quote of the week’, ignoring what preceded that comment: “You don't burn 3,000 calories…fiddling your disability benefit.” Ouch.

We get it. Coren wants to divide and conquer. Some people titter at his devil-may-care superiority and edgy humour. Others get hot under the collar about class stereotyping. Debate ensues: was he being serious? Or is he the Ricky Gervais of the food world?

Hmm. So often reviewers are negative and provocateur just to get a rise from the restaurant owner or a laugh from the reader.

It is too easy to wind people up to attract attention. That is how classes of teenagers drive (degree-holding) teachers to daily distraction.

Critics should develop their writing skills so that they can write a humorous review or article without resorting to gratuitous bile. This is what separates the free-range, organically reared, corn-fed chicken from its two quid frozen rival, and one of the reasons why I admire AA Gill so much.

Most reviewers are unduly harsh because they are at heart people pleasers. Their readers want blood, and if the steak is more ‘bleugh’ than ‘bleu’, they will go to the establishment’s jugular to get it.

Judging by the reaction to Coren’s article in blogs and through online comments, he wasn’t pleasing many people.

It seems wine critics are angsty about their role too...

Friday, 28 March 2008

World domination is within reach...

It’s great to see my little blog starting to make a name for itself. It’s only a few small leaps from being mentioned on Roy Greenslade’s Guardian blog to conquering the Observer/Guardian’s list of the world’s 50 most powerful blogs.

If I reach such dizzying heights I will be sure to mention Roy and my other City tutors who were, after all, instrumental in my decision to set up my own blog. (By then, Roy will have probably been there and done that. I just wanted to give an indication of how magnanimous I am).

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Tommy Cooper vs Dominican Republic?

I am pleased that two food-related court case verdicts in the past week or so saw common sense prevail.

Firstly, the case for 300,000 in damages against M&S, brought by a man who slipped on an (allegedly M&S) grape in the car park outside the store. What did he think he would achieve? I mean, how many people have slipped on some debris - a chip, a slice of tomato from a kebab, a KFC wrapper - on a Saturday night and lived to tell the tale? Did he think his case would set a judicial precedent, with comedians suing banana republics for any slip ups? People who hurt themselves by accident usually just get on with life. This petty scam for a fast buck left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

Another case of sour grapes in the second hearing, when a pizzeria sued the Irish News for allegedly defamatory remarks it made about the establishment. In its review section. Yes, the classic media law balancing act between the right of a journalist to fair comment and the right of a member of the public to protection from libel or slander. A very noble principle, but should it really be expected to apply to a section written by 'critics'? Surely there's a clue in their title?

The verdict may open the floodgates to still more biting criticism from reviewers, since the judge decreed exactly what critics are allowed to get away with by law. Hold onto your stomachs, folks, here's a preview of the bile to come when food critics up the ante:


Monday, 10 March 2008

Power gets peeved

Samantha Power, ex-senior foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, made an astounding slip of the tongue on Friday. As a professional used to dealing with the media (including grillings by Stephen Sackur's on Hard Talk), she would have known that it is ill-advised and fruitless to tell a journalist "that's off the record" after saying something as unbearably juicy as "the woman's a monster" about her employer's election rival, Hillary Clinton. Especially when Camp Obama is purporting to rise above the back-biting.

'Off the record' is a notoriously grey area. Does it mean the journalist can use the information as long as it is not directly attributed to the source? Does it mean the journalist needs to know some sensitive information for background, but it cannot be published? The ambiguity is exploited by both journalists and sources. Often, first-time or inexperienced interviewees get carried away, reveal something, realise they shouldn't have said it, and claim it is off the record. Which can lead to battles of will, as the journalist explains that the caveat does not work quite like that. The reporter must weigh up the ethics and consequences of publishing the material, but he is, theoretically, within his or her right to do so.

But Samantha Power was not an inexperienced interviewee. She could have kept her opinions to hersefl to avoid such a situation. After all, the interview was not even primarily about the election, but about the publication of her new book.

So does that mean journalist Gerri Peev walks away unsullied by the course of events? Journalists and bloggers have been debating this point, and many think not. The general consensus is that Peev would have thought twice about betraying the confidence of Power had she had to use her again as a source. Safe in the knowledge that this would be unlikely, especially knowing Power would not keep the post of Obama aide for very long once the article was published, Peev could forge ahead and get two articles for the price of one.

It is a difficult call to decide who was most in the wrong, Peev or Power.

Had Power been an unassuming member of the public who lost her job through media trickery, the situation would be more clear cut. But she was not. As a political aide, she must have known the power of the media and the magnitude of such throwaway comments.

Peev claims that printing the whole quote - "the woman's a monster - that's off the record"- served the public interest by revealing Team Obama's hypocrisy, hidden until then under a veneer of benevolence. That is, in my mind, a valid point.

It is just a shame that, for the good of the public interest, one woman's career has been left in shreds for the sake of the advancement of that of another.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Blogging backlash

On Valentine's evening, while many of my contemporaries were undoubtedly in some candlelit restaurant, coquettishly sharing pudding with their beau and suggestively locking gazes over wine, I was screaming hysterically in my bedroom. Not with wild passion, and not through the abject misery of rejection. I spent the evening, so to speak, with Max Gogarty, aspiring travel writer and whipping boy of hundreds of bloggers who lampooned his debut entry on the Guardian's blog that day.

It started innocently, with young Max setting the scene and describing with some trepidation his upcoming gap year travels. It was not a terribly accomplished piece of writing, he was not doing anything that thousands of teenagers, including me, had not done before him, and it soon became clear he had landed his enviable blogging job through familial contacts.

But then, the majority of online writing, including this example, isn't terribly accomplished. And the flood of bile that followed his first blog, full of spelling errors and bad grammar, was no exception (although the 300-strong thread, which accumulated in only 12 hours, was substantially more amusing than Max's entry).

The reaction to Max's foray into blogosphere was entertaining and revealing. Firstly, of the class divide and class envy still endemic in Britain. Secondly, of the bitterness life engenders. The bloggers - older, wiser, entrenched in the responsibilities and realities of life - met Max's post with cynicism. It forced them to swallow, once again, a few universal truths: that a degree doesn't hand you your dream job on a plate, that at that age you don't realise how good you've got it, that maybe it is who you know and not what you know, and that once you get a mortgage, a job, and a family, there's little manoeuvre for free-wheeling, shackle-free travel.

Those who had gone down the gap year and uni route were supercilious that they had done it before, when independent travel was gritty, not the cosseted rite of passage they perceive it to be now. Those who had not been there and done that attacked Max and his cushy life, and then the Guardian for packaging Max and his forthcoming experiences as a bold adventure for our consumption. The word 'nepotism' featured strongly.

I howled with mirth reading the posts, which got more inventive and interrelated as they progressed. It was clear that some people had got nothing done in the office that day, dedicating their time to researching Max's background, feverishly pouring scorn on this 19 year old 'upstart', and stifling their snorts and sniggers.

I did feel sad that the stunt had so totally backfired on its author, who would have been touching down alone in a foreign land for the first time as the blog went toxic.

And I found it hard to believe that such an inocuous blog post had produced such a reaction. After all, most people accept that life is unfair, that contacts are useful, and that many industries look after their own. It may not be right, but it is certainly not a phenomenon limited to the media world.

But I was even more shocked that the Guardian discontinued the blog, then tried to recover the situation online and in the Observer with opinion pieces scolding readers and web users for their condemnation of Max and the paper, and opining on the troubling wider meaning and ramifications of his public humiliation ('Backpackers, bullies and the internet', 17/02/08
'Media and the mob', 20/02/08

The Guardian was caught out fair and square by the bloggers. Max is the son of one of its travel writers, Paul Gogarty, and nowhere in the blurb for the initial blog was this mentioned. There would have been no real shame in admitting this - these things blow over. But instead of taking the rap, Guardian journalists hectored readers for daring to point the finger at it, and questioned the state of society.

Excerpts from the articles did not mention Paul Gogarty's name. Instead he was coyly referred to as 'a writer who contributes to the Guardian', and 'Gogarty senior'. The paper did not face up to the nepotism charge with a rebuttal or a 'so what?'. Instead, it criticised bloggers for making Max 'the target for hatred of supposed media corruption and hypocrisy'. Supposed? Have they not read Nick Davies' Flat Earth News?!

The media is excellent at exposing truths, secrets, and corruption in every industry and establishment bar its own. MP Derek Conway was exposed by the papers for paying his son to do an at best cushy, and at worst non-existent cabinet job, to further his son's prospects. Yes, there was a case to be answered in the public interest, it was a misuse of taxpayers' money, but it was essentially the same situation as that of Max Gogarty and his father. Conway was forced to answer the charges, disgraced, and suspended from Parliament. He could not and did not lecture the public until they let him off the hook. Comment is free and the Guardian and the news industry should be able to handle what it dishes out.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

A right royal farce

If I was a celebrity, let's say Jackie Chan, or Schwarzanegger, and my life would be endangered performing a certain role, I'd probably steer clear of it. If I decided to take up the challenge nonetheless, I would expect the film producers and the team around me to go to some lengths to try and assess the danger and minimise the risk.

OK, so I'm not talking about Hollywood. I'm clumsily alluding to Prince Harry. But Harry is a celebrity. Since his mother's death, the press has endeavoured to make him and his brother celebrities to sell papers. And they are doing the same now, for the same reason - to meet the demand of celeb-hungry consumers by selling the gossip in the 'serious' bit of the paper.

Harry is the only famous troop the public knows of serving in Afghanistan. If men were still called up to serve their country, as in the world wars, I can think of a lot of slebs who would use their status, money, contacts, whatever, to get out of risking their neck on the front line. They certainly wouldn't want their exact location bandied about in the international press. Such a revelation wouldn't just have put Harry at risk, but his entire team, people that don't go home to a luxury palace and who do not have the option of putting their feet up for the rest of their days if it all gets a bit frightening.

There are those who resent his 'charmed' life and that of his family. I am still not convinced either way about the Royals, but I am certain Harry would have been criticised whatever he chose to do. When he was boozing it up in Bijous every night with his laydee he was accused of being just another Royal lounge lizard layabout. Now he is serving his country he is accused of being complicit in propoganda for continued war. People criticise him as selfish, insisting on going to Afghanistan for personal fulfilment. The man cannot live the life of a two-dimensional puppet, aping a job to satisfy the masses. The same people would have scorned him if he had used his privilege to avoid his duty.

As for the press, there seems to be a great deal of navel-gazing, self-flagellation and wringing of hands going on. It may have something to do with the fact that Royals sell newspapers, and the more mileage the press can squeeze out of the Harry saga, the more profit they will make from it, exclusive or not.

Just because the media agreed to keep quiet as to Harry's whereabouts, and to use pooled images and interviews once the secret was out, does not mean that it has succumbed to state control. In this instance, I agree with Roy Greenslade, that it is a case of much ado about nothing.

Monday, 14 January 2008

In the first week of my work experience placement at the Hendon Times I was faced with the attractive prospect of interviewing the proprietor and head chef of the restaurant voted the best in London by the VisitLondon awards.

As many of you know, food is a large part of my life and this seemed like the first step on the best-case-scenario of my life plan - becoming a food writer. Little did I know that an ethical dilemma was waiting for me at the Gourmet Garden Malaysian restaurant...

Well, I went and met the owner, and talked to him about the award, and his restaurant, and which dish he thought had swayed the judges. He was even more obsessed with food than I am, so we were getting on famously and I had already got down enough good quotes. We had to wait around for a PR rep who had insisted on coming and eventually failed to turn up, so we kept talking about the restaurant and the food, and when he mentioned a crab dish, I blurted out “oh I love crab!”

Well, as soon as I said that he only clicked his fingers and ordered an underling to cook some up for me! I tried to eat my words and pleaded with him that it wasn’t professional, but in the end there was nothing for it but to do the honourable thing and sample the crab. And it was delish. But I had a sinking feeling that even though I was going to write a complimentary piece on this guy anyway, now that I’d eaten his forbidden fruit, I was obliged to.

What if the crab had been disgusting? What would I have done? The moral, I have learnt, is that no means no. On a larger scale, where the consequences would be more dramatic, it’s best to risk offending people and keep your stomach growling but your journalistic integrity intact.