Leo Schofield reflects on the latest food reviewing court case, reported in yesterday’s Crikey Daily:

Oh to have had the Coco Roco judge and jury for the lobster case,
rather than the ones we were saddled with. By common consent the
lobster served to me and to other customers at the Blue Angel was
pretty dire. I said so and went for a row. Matthew Evans seems to have
had better luck. In retrospect, what probably did me and Fairfax was
my reference to the waiter’s polyester shirts, garments much favoured
by the male jurors, and the headline HIGH DRAMA WHERE LOBSTERS HAVE NO
PRIVACY, which I didn’t write and which to this day I don’t understand.
The sub also screwed up on spelling, changing my ‘broiled’ to ‘boiled’,
thereby giving the impression that the crustacean was boiled rather
than grilled, a costly factual error. It’s good to see that a
subsequent jury was unswayed by the arguments of an ambulance-chasing
QC.

And with a legal/social perspective, Richard Ackland from Justinian writes:

In
the realms of restaurant review litigation, my personal favourite is
Polatidis v Fairfax – a defamation action brought by the proprietor of
the Blues Point Café in McMahons Point. In February 1997 a jury awarded
the plaintiff $180,000 for a stinky review by John Newton in the Good Living section of The Sydney Morning Herald.

According
to the material before the court Newton’s review was merciless –
attacking the cakes and desserts, the Russian salad, the state of the
cutlery, the use of granulated chicken flavour booster and jumbo
bottles of tomato sauce. The imputations pleaded were that the
plaintiff serves sub standard food, supplies grubby cutlery and engages
in misleading conduct by describing his business as a café when it is
only a cafeteria. The jury found that Newton’s review conveyed those
imputations and that they were defamatory. The comment and truth
defences collapsed.

The evidence in the trial, as reported by the Gazette of Law & Journalism,
was hilarious, with hours of analysis of tinned salads, the economics
of cake making, the use of chocolate éclair “boats,” the making of
mayonnaise, flavour boosters and washing up. It was an amazing peek
behind the kitchen door of a food establishment.

The jury must
have preferred Mr Polatidis to Mr Newton, just as another one must have
warmed to the proprietor of the Blue Angel more than to Mr Schofield.
Maybe restaurant critics have a tendency to be innately irritating to
representatives of the ordinary reasonable reader.

In the Coco
Roco case the contenders didn’t give evidence, as this was just a
preliminary trial on whether the meaning contended by the plaintiffs
arose from Matthew Evans’s review and whether they were defamatory. The
defence of comment, strictly speaking, was not an issue at that stage.

So
one must be careful in hailing the Coco Roco outcome as some joyous
turning point in the freedom to comment about food, art, architecture
or anything else. It isn’t, although it’s a nice little victory for the
publisher nonetheless.

What is fascinating is the difficulty
in getting a fix on community values. In Polatidis, the jury thought
that to say someone serves “sub standard” food was defamatory. In Coco
Roco, the jury found that saying the restaurateur serves “unpalatable”
food is not defamatory. Try to work that out.