The blogger blackmail saga

The internet is currently on fire with a spat between a blogger and an artisan patisserie owner, and it has a hashtag all of its own: #bloggerblackmail. It would be quite funny, if it wasn’t for the fact that real people with real feelings are involved. From a distance, this is what appears to have happened. A food blogger is invited to review an artisan patisserie in Kensington, but when she arrives she doesn’t feel loved enough – the samples offered for free, in her eyes, don’t justify the eight hours she says it takes her to write a review (dude! you seriously need to work faster!). She asks for more samples, and these are declined. She then writes a bad review of the patisserie. The patisserie owner spills the beans on her blog, prompting a painful response by the blogger. It’s a complete car crash.

We haven’t had anything quite like this in the wine blogging community: the food blogging community is much bigger, and more developed, and a bit more freebie prone. But as a fellow blogger, I think this incident raises several issues surrounding disclosure, freebies and payment (whether financial or in kind) for blog posts.

Basically, if you take payment for content, then your work suffers. Readers aren’t stupid (well, some of them might be, but most are quite smart). They know when something’s amiss. The trust of your readers is a currency that’s not really yours to spend. If you want to be taken seriously, then you need to play it straight.

I’ve been offered payment for guest posts here on this blog. I’ve said no every time, because I think it would damage the quality of my content, even if the posts were marked clearly as ‘sponsored content’, which of course they would have to be. I’ve also not been even slightly tempted: the sums offered are pitiful. [Bloggers, if you are going to sell your souls, don’t do it so cheaply!] Of course, I am in a fortunate position of making a living out of wine writing, so I wouldn’t criticise a blogger who did take sponsored content if that’s the only way they can pay their bills. But it’s far from ideal, and it needs to be disclosed clearly. [I am particularly reluctant to play holier-than-thou with other writers over conflicts of interest. The more established you are, the easier it is to avoid them. But everyone has to start somewhere, and I don’t want to knock back young writers who have been forced to conflict themselves: if I were in their position might I be forced to make the same compromises? Remember: conflicts of interest aren’t necessarily bad, and it doesn’t mean the writer is corrupt, as long as they are disclosed so that the reader is aware of them. Then it is down to trust.]

Freebies? Well, most of the wine I taste is freely provided, whether at organized tastings, or as samples. The more you get of these, the less an issue this becomes: I have so many samples arriving that it is anything but a big deal, and this allows me to judge them fairly without feeling beholden to the person who sent them. My travel is also largely funded by others. Clearly, this is not ideal. But unless you want the pool of wine writers to be restricted to the independently wealthy and people with rich significant others, then there is no way round this one.

One source of tension is the issue of assigning importance to bloggers. Which blogs really matter? Who deserves freebies, and to what level? This isn’t a new problem: PRs have had to make this call for years in assigning importance to print journalists. It’s just that with the emergence of blogging and social media, suddenly everyone is on unfamiliar ground. But whether you are old media or new, it’s best to be humble, and to not have an overinflated sense of self-importance. If you ever find yourself even thinking the question – ‘Do you know who I am?’ – then you need to go to a quiet place for a few days for some reflection.

As a general rule of thumb, if you are providing content, keep it pure. Write about what you want to write about. Don’t compromise by writing bait for advertising (as many print publications do), or writing the sorts of articles that get the most hits or responses (I could write lots of deliberately controversial pieces that get my comments section whirring, but that wouldn’t be right). And don’t write for SEO – your writing style is your signature, and if you change it for search engines, then you have compromised. And you have to try your best not to let your opinions be swayed by circumstances: if you had a particularly good or particularly bad experience with a winemaker, you need to try not to let that lens distort what you see in a wine.

6 comments to The blogger blackmail saga

  • Richard Evans

    I think what made it particularly egregious was that rather than being invited the blogger was the one who contacted the bakery and asked to come in for free samples, which she then deemed to be insufficient. It encapsulates the whole problem which is that the blogger/restaurant nexus exists as a form of astroturf marketing whereby the blogger’s readers think they are independent when they are anything but. It is all a bit morally bankrupt. At least most bloggers will disclose their freebies allowing the rest of us to discount their opinions….

    Someone like Jay Rayner takes a very strict view of it and you have to agree with him (although I’ve never seen him address the point that if you review a restaurant on an expense account and then get paid back by the Observer expenses department it doesn’t quite emulate the experience/feeling of someone who genuinely spent their own money).

    Applying it to wine critics – I suppose the fact that basically every single sample every critic tastes is free means that the playing field is at least level in that respect. More of the issue is that many critics (and Jamie stands out as someone who does this better than most) only talk in shades of praise and will not be down on a wine unless it is corked or genuinely awful. You can start to read between the lines and the euphemisms and seeing wines damned by faint praise – or low scores – but you could show tasting notes of very poor wines to someone who didn’t follow wine who might think the wine was being highly praised.

    I think the key point again is disclosure – if I know that a critic was taken around Ribero del Duero as a guest of ‘Wines of Spain’ it doesn’t invalidate their opinion but it does mean you make allowances for it.
    Similarly if I know that a blogger is reviewing wines made by their uncle then I probably am going to disregard their opinion, but that’s why it’s so vital they declare it.

    The problem in the wine world is not really critics, it’s the ‘reviews’ by merchants which ape the style and language of critics and try to appear objective when they are just trying to sell the wines, but at least their motivation is fairly clear to most.
    My particular bugbear is the email which lists new releases from a winery but which implores you, as a ‘personal and objective view’ to buy the most expensive.

  • Richard

    Happy to be corrected but you don’t routinely disclose who pays for your travel costs. I don’t think ‘funded by others’ (above) is adequate.

  • tmc

    One important detail is wrong above. You say “A food blogger is invited to review an artisan patisserie in South Kensington”, but she wasn’t invited. She invited herself: “I contacted a bakery in High Street Kensington a few months ago, to see if I might be able to engage with them as a blogger, come in and try the product, and write something about it on my blog.”

  • I think both parties come across very poorly although in my opinion the blogger comes off worse. Not only is the threats and subsequent Instagram tantrum disgraceful and embarrassing, I also find her suggestion that a post takes an average of 8 hours to put together just ludicrous.

    As far as the bakery is concerned, you’re right they should’ve been clearer about terms beforehand, and describing her blog as insignificant is uncalled for and petty. Ironically though, this controversy will do much more for their SEO than making her experience a pleasant one!

  • TO

    I keep hearing people insist that getting gifts or money from a company doesn’t affect their willingness to give a bad review, but even if that were true – and even if their readers believed it to be true – the mere fact of choosing to review one company over another is already showing favouratism.

    If you write a three page spread with photos about a bakery who gave you a bunch of stuff, and don’t write a three page spread with photos about their competitor down the street who didn’t give you anything, then you are showing favouratism to the one who gave you stuff.

    It’s no longer really a review at that point, it’s some kind of paid advertising or sponsored promotional feature.

  • It’s always struck me as odd that restaurant reviewing is considered so differently in the public’s mind.
    The slightest hint that a restaurant critic (professional or amateur) has received so much as a free chip apparently renders them unreliable and unethical. That even goes as far as Guides: the Good Food Guide, Hardens etc seem much more trustworthy than those guides which take payment for inclusion/enhanced listings.

    But in pretty much every other field of writing, nobody really cares that much.

    Food bloggers and journalists rely on free samples, test equipment etc. Radio 4’s Food Programme is always excellent, but when they go to visit a producer and taste samples, do they pay? Maybe the food producer gets an appearance fee? I don’t know. And I don’t think there are many people who would care.

    I strongly suspect the travel journalists in the newspapers etc don’t pay their own way. Some of the various rescuing-failing-businesses programmes on TV make it clear that travel journalists and some bloggers do get freebies, and tourist boards etc certainly take journalists on press trips. Maybe the amateur travel bloggers pay their way more? I don’t know, and haven’t ever actually read any.
    Wine writing, professional and amateur, unless independently wealthy, needs organised tastings, free samples, press trips etc. You just couldn’t do it otherwise. I certainly couldn’t imagine any wine writer buying loads of sub-£6 wines to taste, although they’re the ones that are often recommended in printed and broadcast media.

    But if a professional restaurant critic admitted accepting a freebie, I reckon s/he’d quickly be having to look for a new job. Why are restaurants such a special case, I wonder?

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