Friday, 19 February 2010

Online wine writing and ethics

'It's easy to have ethics when you've got lots of money,' was the oft-quoted, ironic call of the Wine Writers' Symposium session on wine writing and ethics. At least it was on Twitter. It's an ironic comment aimed, more likely than not, at the likes of Robert Parker who can afford to buy-in thousands of bottles a year and taste them while keeping to his high ethical standards.

These very standards were questioned after it emerged that two of his writers at the Wine Advocate had taken trips as guests of affiliations that might have an interest in promoting their own region. Hence the ironic nature of the quote.

The line also blatantly states that those without the means (ie many bloggers and independent wine writers) don't have the levels of cash that allow them to pay for weeks in New Zealand or South Africa or Chile as research trips. There's a hint of envy in there, but it's essentially saying 'most of us can't afford to be distanced from gifts and press trips because otherwise our coverage would be severely limited'.

And yet it also seems that a lot of vitriol is poured by bloggers on magazines for what is seen as dubious practice: they take advertisements, thus they are compromised. In fact, most magazines run with ad departments in separate rooms to the editorial staff to avoid just such issues. I'm not saying the issues don't occur, but there is a gulf between the two.

Contrast that to a blogger, often self-employed, who will take advertising directly to her or his telephone, and possibly while writing a blog, and you find potentially more conflicts of interest than at a magazine.

It doesn't stop there. Online advertising revenue (in a similar fashion to print) depends on hits or unique users. Thus if you wish to keep writing and make money from your passion, you are almost compelled to please the widest possible audience (or at least the reader demographic you have established) and keep them coming back for more. This in itself raises ethical questions - why should writers be forced to please their readership? It is a form of censorship. And until the Revolution comes, sometimes even I will find myself doing it.

As this debate was going on, a lot of people linked to a blog by Tina Caputo on just this subject. The blog concluded thus:

Larry Walker sums up the ethics debate with this amusing anecdote. “In the 1960s there was a Speaker of the House in Sacramento, Jesse Unruh, who was well known for taking every perk offered by lobbyists - then voting however he wanted,” he relates. “When asked how he could do that, he said: ‘If you can’t drink their whiskey, eat their dinners and screw their women, and still vote for the best interest of your constituents, you don’t belong in the California legislature.”

And to that, I raise a glass of (sample) wine and say: Here’s to those who can partake of the occasional job-related perk and still take the high road.

In short (leaving Unruh's own very dubious ethics aside): 'yes, there are ethical issues, I am part of the problem, but you can trust me to stay above it all'. This seems to be the trouble with the debate at the moment in that, after 1,400 words of saying that the 'wine industry is full of ethical ambiguities', the only conclusion we get is that it will remain that way and we just have to trust the writer.

And I can't find any evidence to the contrary. Jamie Goode also brought up this bizarre situation on his blog recently by posting about a press trip and at the same time raising this issue - with predictably inconclusive results.

[Interestingly, Jamie Goode also once made the excellent point to me that trips and perks take away from a blogger's daily work, and remember, time is money. It might sound a bit haughty and let-them-eat-cake, but it rings true. If you view blogging as a business, it makes no sense to be out of the office for a week swanning around New Zealand if there's nothing to show for it at the end. You might as well be taking a holiday - which is just poor business sense.]

But ethics issues don't stop with wine. Do we not think PR agencies are at work in other fields? The fashion and automotive press have similar, if not more dubious ethics, and yet there is a massive market for their magazines.

Perhaps the answer lies in stopping this navel-gazing on the part of us wine writers and get on with trying to make wine writing popular again.

But how do we stop obviously poor ethical practises? We can't wholly do so, but I would suggest trial by peer: it's up to us to call a writer out (not strictly to duel, although it could be a step on the way to making wine writing more appealing to a broader audience) when something they've written has all the hallmarks of a kick-back.

And that's where the blogging community has a problem: sometimes we're all a bit too chummy to each other to be critical.

As Oscar Wilde said: 'true friends stab you in the front'. Knives out, people.

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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Wine writing vs wine advertising

Christmas 2005? Remember it? Probably not. But the people at French regional paper Le Parisien do because an article of theirs on Champagne that came out at the time was later considered as advertising by a court. The paper was fined and told that any similar articles would have to carry health warnings.

At the time, (wine) journalists were up in arms. We knew the Evin Law (that regulates tobacco and wine advertising in France) was draconian, but we didn't know it would go that far. It was an insult to free speech, we said, to journalism as a trade, we added. The French health lobbies were flexing their muscles but we never thought this kind of thing would happen. It was all so absurd.

Or was it? If you can read French, take a look at this: Le coffret Clos des Mouches. If you can't, let me summarise: it's basically 150 words of advertising for a boxed set of two bottles from Burgundy's Clos des Mouches. 'The mysterious name', 'the great wine of Burgundy' and 'for decades Joseph Drouhin has devoted all of its passion and know-how to assure the staying power of this wine'.

Now, I admit Le Figaro's wine coverage is better than almost all of the other major French newspapers, and I'll also admit that this piece is obviously straight from Figaro magazine - not the main paper; and I don't particularly mind gushing wine reviews. But honestly. There are winery bosses out there who would sell their kidneys for that kind of exposure. Maybe the law in France has changed, but I'm surprised that piece hasn't got a health warning under it.

And whether or not this is a copy-and-paste job from a magazine, it hardly bodes well for the future of wine writing on the internet does it? I mean, if we're going to get flooded by this kind of stuff from every publication, there'll be a lot of google-wading to do. This is just another example.

You begin to wonder if the case against Le Parisien wasn't the wake-up call some of us needed.

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