Food & Travel

Jun 29, 2012

Legal battle over restaurant review leaves bitter taste

A nine-year High Court battle over a restaurant review in The Sydney Morning Herald finally came to a close this week and it's left food reviewers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

A nine-year High Court battle over a restaurant review in The Sydney Morning Herald finally came to a close this week but the result left food writers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

In 2003, then SMH restaurant writer Matthew Evans gave a damning review of the food at Sydney’s Coco Roco restaurant. The limoncello oysters (sounds appetising, doesn’t it?) were described as “sickly sweet, overtly alcoholic, slippery, salty and bitter”. Evans deemed the Coco Roco pork belly as “the porcine equal of a parched Weetbix”.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

11 thoughts on “Legal battle over restaurant review leaves bitter taste

  1. Sancho

    Surely restaurant reviews are redundant when there are so many website devoted to customer reviews.

    I trust aggregate consumer reviews over the ostensibly superior judgements of a newspaper reviewer, even though both can be influenced by fashion.

  2. paddy

    Thank goodness for the food bloggers and social media.
    The days of the “big name” food critics are in steep decline.
    (A bit like the mastheads they work for.)
    I agree with Sancho. Aggregate consumer reviews are the way to go.
    Not perfect, but much more robust and reliable than a single (paid) reviewer.

  3. alisonrixon

    People reviewing on the web can be caught by these laws – if someone thinks you have deep pockets and can identify you, they will sue you about a web post. This issue isn’t about who writes the best review, it’s that Australian law has no protection of free speech.

  4. Amber Jamieson

    @AlisonRixon That’s a good point, which I should have also mentioned. Bloggers and so forth are still bound by defamation laws. And I still believe it’s important to have reviews written by knowledge experts who spend their life eating out around the world as well as bloggers and social media foodies who blog and tweet their food opinions.

  5. Terzon Emilia

    Completely agree with Dobbin that the review market has skewed away from actual “reviews” towards just posting nice things about nice places. As a writer, I have encountered this numerous times of late with pitching to websites and publications. One Editor even told me to only ever pitch and then write positive reviews about places that I personally like.

    Of course, that’s all well and good, but consider two things: A) writers need to pay $$ to go eat/drink first to make an assessment (to be reimbursed if the review goes ahead) and B) being commissioned is a tough market. Upon visiting somewhere bad/average, why on earth would a struggling writer write a truthful review, when it would mean they’re out of pocket and probably not get published? Potential insincerity ends up being rewarded.

    I do understand the place of “nice” sites: some readers just want a portal of all things good and recommended. But the trend overall towards this is damaging, especially for paid work. I’m not sure if it’s due to advertising concerns, the precarious nature of print media, or this defamation trend: most likely a combination of all.

  6. Margo

    What, exactly, is the point of writing a ‘review’ of anything if you can’t be honest when a negative assessment is warranted? What about book reviews? Reviews of films and tv programs? Hotel accommodation? The value of reviews is that they tell it like it is. If a patron’s restaurant experience was sub-standard, the value of the review is in sharing that experience — doesn’t matter if it’s a professional reviewer or an ordinary customer.

  7. Hamis Hill

    Re defamation and freedom of speech, it is a civil matter and if reviewers or bloggers do not cause damage they cannot be sued for damage, it is that simple. Do not cause damage and you will not be sued for damages.
    The let out ploy is to cause damage and have no assets to cover the damage.
    Now who says poor people have no power. Wealthy individuals sometimes have little say because they have much to lose.
    A lot of the more intelligent and more erudite citizens, though all others might benefit from their input, do not contribute to public debate for fear of litigation.
    Perhaps they employ other more indirect means to get their influence across.

  8. Elworthy Brent

    Hamis – you obviously don’t understand the law on defamation. It’s not necessary that you actually cause damage – that comes into assessment of the penalty (the law calls that “damages”).
    It is only necessary that what the word published tend to adversely affect the plaintiff’s reputation “in the eyes of right-thinking people generally” – that’s the assessment the jury must come to.
    One more point: There are recognised defences to defamation (truth, justification, fair criticism) but – and here’s the rub – the onus of proof is on the defendant.
    I sympathise with reviewers at large publishing houses. In-house lawyers are typically concerned with whether a passage is defamatory – not with whether the defamation is defendable.
    All the talk lately about editorial independence and freedom of speech is just that – talk.
    What is the point in employing reviewers who are expert in their area (e.g. food) if the publisher is not prepared to stand by them when a critical review is called for.
    The case of the SMH will doubtless serve as a reminder to scribes that they can defame someone when it’s called for, but only when they can prove it.
    By the way, anyone for a wager: Will the restaurateurs get more in damages than they forked out for lawyers – or less?

  9. Hamis Hill

    Elworthy Brent, for the benefit of other posters, “obviously” from his above post, does not know what a “tort” is. It is a “wrong” El, and that wrong is the cause of the damages for which the civil courts provide relief.
    And no amount of petifogging obsfucation will eliminate that legal fact.
    If you do not committ a tort or wrong then you have not damaged anything and no damages can be assessed.
    Your exceptions are secondary to the fact that defamation is a tort and comes under the law of tort.
    If a reputation is already damaged then it is not a “wrong” to mention that fact publically.
    In criminal cases there may be differences. But the salient point remains, do not set out to create damage and you will not be sued for damages.
    There is a moral as well as legal aspect to defamation and knowing the fundamental difference between right and wrong is a good defence.
    By the way, will the newspaper footing the bill for damages care who gets the money?
    Just as long as they feel the sting of punishment El. I think it involves something called justice.
    Perhaps you can inform posters what they do not “obviously” know about that?

  10. zut alors

    Truth and plain speak appear to be a casualty of our society.

    A friend is in charge of a boarding house at a ‘name’ college – the staff are not permitted to write anything negative about even the most recalcitrant boarders in the end of term reports. Hence, many parents are deluding themselves in thinking their offspring are well behaved and house-trained. The reports are a waste of time. Just like Oz restaurant reviews, apparently.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details