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”.
Within six months of the review being published, the restaurant was closed. Shortly afterwards owners Aleksandra Gacic, Ljiljana Gacic and Branislav Ciric began a defamation case against Fairfax that has involved a full hearing of the High Court and two trips to the Court of Appeal. Fairfax finally lost and the damages hearing will shortly decide how much it has to cough up in compensation.
Food and restaurant writer at The Australian, John Lethlean, tells Crikey he feels sorry for Fairfax and Evans over the case. “I have no doubt that Matthew Evans did his job thoroughly and with the right motivation, which was informing readers.”
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Lethlean says he’s constantly wary of the possibility of defamation in his weekly restaurant reviews. “It’s a constant sort of push and pull between editorial and legal,” said Lethlean. “You’ll write something colourful, they’ll [The Australian’s lawyers] try and take it out, sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes you wonder why because it’s just emasculating the piece.
“If you get a feeling from the start that there are some hard words that need to be said, you spend the next whatever hours in the restaurant making sure that you have evidence to support the kind of comments you are going to make,” said Lethlean.
He has his own method of trying to protect himself and provide evidence. “I always make sure if something contentious is going in, I have photographs of it. I started photographing in restaurants before blogs had even been heard of. If I want to say something is oily, I make sure I’ve got a photograph of oily. If I’m going to say the tablecloths were stained and tatty, I take photographs of stained and tatty tablecloths.”
Lethlean estimates he has thousands of photos of restaurants he’s reviewed. But since photos can’t accurately describe the taste of something, there are other methods he employs to cover himself legally.
“If you’re convinced that someone’s used commercially produced mayonnaise, you don’t say it was commercial mayonnaise because you can’t prove it, you say ‘the taste and texture reminded me of a commercially made product’,” explained Lethlean. He notes that he can’t say something tastes like Harpic Toilet Cleaner, even if he’d eaten Harpic Toilet Cleaner and the food tasted just like it because “you just know that it won’t get through the lawyers. You just don’t bother writing it.”
Cases such as Fairfax v Coco Roco are dulling the food reviewing culture in Australia, notes freelance wine, food and travel writer Winsor Dobbin. “If a reviewer has to rein in their opinions, it’s a disservice to readers,” said Dobbin. “It limits … how critical you can be in print or for that matter on social media.”
Dobbin says there’s a tendency for smaller publishers to prefer positive stories on food and wine over more critical takedowns. “There’s a shift away from brutal criticism,” said Dobbin. “In the wine reviewing sphere, you very rarely see brutal reviews because newspaper and magazine editors are looking for wines the readers would want to drink rather than wines the readers want to avoid.”
Australia has much stricter defamation laws than the UK. “Some of the stuff that AA Gill and Jay Rayner [The Guardian‘s restaurant critic] write in Britain would certainly land them in court in Australia,” Dobbin said.