Sunday, June 19, 2011

AA Gill Pans ‘Food Blaggers’

I posted a link to a great article today, which sparked a bit of banter on Twitter, so I thought I’d write something about it. The piece was about the food writing scene in Australia, and the attitude of PR people towards food bloggers compared with traditional (ie. paid) food writers, and included an interesting quote from the always closely-guarded AA Gill.

Although firstly declaring a non-interest by saying he never reads food blogs (he doesn’t have the time), he then went on to put the knife in, by saying food bloggers (or food blaggers as one writer on Twitter called them) are sponsoring their hobby by getting freebies from PRs.

He panned the lack of critical commentary in their writing, and suggested they were giving suppliers and restaurants an easy ride to maximise their goodies.

This roused a flurry of sleepy Sunday morning activity from food bloggers, who accused him of living in the dark ages, and pointed out that he’d obviously NEVER do such a thing himself (nice sunglasses Adrian).

Food blogger @rocketandsquash summed up the mood, by saying: “It’s true for some, but it’s also a lazy generalisation, undermined by his point that he doesn’t read any (food blogs).”

The interesting thing was most agreed with Gill to some extent. They knew all about the food blogs out there, giving them a bad name. The ones drooling over wonderful suppliers, fabulous pop-ups, and smashing restaurants in the hope of furthering their gluttony/writing ambitions.

Hell, they might even get paid without the calories one day...

And it seems the PR firms and their terrible, shameless minions just can’t get enough of it. In fact, it’s frightening how much marketing cash there is still out there in these belt-tightening times. This blog has been offered goodies and press trips in the past, but nothing compared to some.

Simon Majumdar, who writes one half of the excellent Dos Hermanos blog, said despite posting less recently due to work commitments, DH still gets around three dozen invitations a week – which they always decline.

But we’ve all read, or at least passed a cursory glance over, the sort of food blogs that are far less discretionary. It would be unfair to name names, but you know the sort – they get a free pack of organic vegetables delivered to the door, then a crate of meat from some famous, hideously-overpriced butcher in London, or seafood from a wonderful little fisherman in the West Country, invite a few friends around for a meal Jamie-style, and then endlessly Twitter and blog about the suppliers.

Some on Twitter pointed out that many blogs do at least suggest it is more advertorial than editorial by inserting phrases like “courtesy of...” at the bottom. This may address the issue in a very small way (like throwing a pebble across the Channel on D-Day) by at least acknowledging the plug, but when did you ever read a food blog – or any kind of ‘proper’ food writing for that matter - that slammed a supplier’s meat as gristly, nebulous chunks of putrid offal then put ‘courtesy of’ with a link back to O’Craig’s Organic Ostriches at the bottom?

Part of the reason, must be nerve and experience. One of the first things you learn in journalism is you make few friends, but plenty of contacts. It’s not until you’ve got home to find your furniture's been rearranged, that you realise you’re doing your job properly if people get upset. Although this is no comfort when you’ve put the phone down to the first death threat of the day, and every creak on the stairway is a balaclava-clad thug with an electric drill. Being worried about an angry call from an irate oyster farmer 300 miles away in Devon is pathetic.

When I worked on my first daily newspaper, we got £40 for writing a restaurant review. Nothing for ourselves, mind. The £40 just paid for you and someone else to buy a meal, and write about it for free. I was in Brighton – a nest of PR vipers with hundreds of media-hungry restaurants on their books – so it would have been easy to reverse it so that I kept the £40, and had the delicious, unctuous meal for free.

But we didn’t. And the main reason was that it was just about the only chance we had to really write what we thought, no doubt in a tedious, self-congratulatory way. Of course, there was one major advertiser – a local, highly successful Italian restaurant – that was completely off limits, but we had great fun scrawling our scathing, highly-invective, but genuinely-held views. And it just wouldn’t have happened if we’d pocketed the £40 ourselves.

PS. If you’re reading this and work for a PR firm, please don’t be put off by the above. Just leave the goodies in the usual spot, and I’ll send you a link to the plug. Corfu’s awfully nice at this time of the year...

Best, Lennie xxxx


Kavey said...

I understand the underlying point, but as usual, there's an awful lot of exaggeration and generalisation!

Here's a post I did in 2009, when this topic was being discussed fairly heatedly in the UK:

You can see that I call out the old rubbery carrots for lack of freshness and black mark some delivery issues as well.

Personally, I don't hesitate to express negative opinions if that's what I think. If PRs want to guarantee a positive review, then they are best off approaching someone else, and I make this clear before accepting any products or invitations.

Where I am bored shitless by a product I'm sent for review or a restaurant meal or event I'm invited to, I don't blog it.

I don't avoid blogging just because I have a negative opinion, it's down to whether what I have to say about the product bores me. I figure if it bores me to write it, it will bore anyone else to read it, so I don't bother. That said, of course, some of what interests me to write/ share will still bore readers, and that's fine. They have the choice to read or not to read just as I have the choice to write or not to write.

That said, regardless of the points he's making, I think AA Gill is an arse. Either he's commenting on something he has no knowledge of (given his claims of reading NO food blogs) or he's a liar who doesn't want to admit that he does read them. An arse either way!

Jane-Anne said...

A very interesting and thought provoking read. Thank you. I don't accept any freebies as a matter of policy, but I understand, to an extent, why other bloggers do.

Buggles and Squeak said...

I find this comment interesting

"He panned the lack of critical commentary in their writing, and suggested they were giving suppliers and restaurants an easy ride to maximise their goodies".

Our blog is under siege from some 'anonymous' person, who accuses us of not being transparent, because we have written quite a favourable review of one cafe & some not so flattering reviews of others.

So it seems 'blaggers' can't win.

So, we have not done what AA Gill suggests and given "suppliers and restaurants an easy ride to maximise OUR goodies", which may, of course, explain why we are never offered said "goodies".

We have tried however, to be VERY honest when it comes to our reviews...if a place is good, we praise it, if it isn't we don't. End of story.

However, it would seem this "critical commentary" is a problem for some readers.
We have been accused of having an interest in, or being the owners of, a particular cafe & that we are just using our blog to bring other cafes/restaurants down.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

But like I said, bloggers can't win either way, whether they are critical or not.

Anonymous said...

I must say we at Craig's organic ostriches only use the best nebulous chunks and we're head and shoulders above other paltry suppliers. As we like to say "don't bury your head in the sand, fill your face with a big bird"

Kavey said...

B&S a couple of years back, I was accused of same, being a paid shill or new PR for a restaurant I reviewed positively. I just happened to love it! And yes, getting those anonymous visits too.

Emmy Dylan said...

aa gill just wants to attract attention, but more importantly, for those who might be interested in the subject of food bloggers, you might need to read this:
This should be the standard, the rule in food blogging.