You are a restaurant critic. A good friend owns a restaurant and asks you to review it. The food is mediocre. Do you say so in the review?
Being an honest sort of person, I think I’d have to be honest about my experience at the restaurant, even if this person is a good friend of mine. My reputation as a trusted source for good eats would require it. I am assuming I do this for a living and get paid by a newspaper or magazine and don’t just write shit up on a blog so I can digitally piss on all the places that I thought sucked.
The game I take these questions from was printed in the mid 1980s before the internet and sites Yelp.com made it easy for everyone to rave or complain about service and food quality.
There’s this article from 2007 documenting a lawsuit over a review but more recently in France this July, a blogger was sued by a restaurant.
According to French website Arrêt sur Images, the restaurant’s owner admitted that the service Doudet received may not have been perfect, but that the article was “more of an insult than criticism” and was doing his business harm when it appeared in Google searches.
In typical internet style, Google searches for the restaurant now prominently feature articles about it suing Caroline Doudet.
Although the restaurant sued about the entire article, the judge’s decision was limited to the headline, which Doudet was ordered to change. In addition to the €1,500 fine she had to pay €1,000 (£790) in court costs, bringing her total bill for writing a blogpost to €2,500 (£2,000).
Doudet opted to delete the article rather than fix the headline.
Talk about a headache.
In June 2014, an Australian restaurant finally won an eleven year battle against a newspaper (edited to add actual link to article, 11:51 am) and the paper was
forced to pay $AUS623,526 [£349,000] for a notorious critique which described the pork belly as “the porcine equal of a parched Weetbix [Weetabix]”
The 2003 review, by Matthew Evans, in the Sydney Morning Herald of plush waterside restaurant Coco Roco provided colourful descriptions of the “soggy blackberries”, “overcooked potatoes”, “outstandingly dull” roast chicken and limoncello oysters that “jangle like a car crash”, before warning readers – perhaps unnecessarily – to “stay home”.
Coco and Roco were separate places; Evans was reviewing Coco at the time, which had recently opened. It was forced to close its doors six months later and the owners blame it all on Evans’ review which remained available to read online long after the restaurant was gone.
The newspaper eventually lost the case after a court ruled that the review failed to adequately point out that Coco Roco included two restaurants and that Evans had eaten at the upmarket Coco and was not reviewing the bistro-style Roco.
Evans gave up the review business and moved to Tasmania a few years ago. He’s quoted as telling another paper, it’s
“a sad day for Australian food journalism”.
“I think reviewers and publications become fearful of being sued,” he told The Hobart Mercury.
It’s not just food journalism, though. It’s bigger than that and the risk is everywhere.
Simon Singh made headlines in the UK (and around the skeptic world) when the British Chiropractic Association attempted to sue him for libel. He wrote an article critical of chiropractors and some of the claims they’ll make about effectiveness. The case was later dropped.
“Other scientists, science writers, bloggers, investigative journalists, human rights activists – all get threatened with these libel suits,” he told BBC News. “And at the end of the day, the people who lose out are the general public because we don’t get to find out the real truth because these libel suits just stop good journalism.”
Dr Singh said he was still waiting to find out how the costs of the case would be borne. He said his defence had so far cost him in excess of £100,000.
I don’t want to change my answer to the question and claim the place is better than it is just to avoid a potential lawsuit. I’d just aim to be clear in writing and express my opinion on where the place fell flat without being overly insulting or hypercritical about the rest of it. I’d just try to write it in a way that shows I care about quality.