All Nova Scotia revealed on Friday that the Chronicle Herald’s “Bourgeois Gourmet”, Bill Spurr, was asking restaurants to pay for the use of his positive reviews. Victor Feinberg, owner of the North End’s Hali Deli, spilled the beans after Spurr contacted him to look for payment after Feinberg posted good review of the deli, written by Spurr.
Spurr’s argument is one of intellectual property ownership, and paying for rights to use it. He reasons that he produced the article and therefore, it’s his work and he should be paid for it, just as he would be for the use of any freelance material.
The problem though, is that this not just any freelance material. It’s supposed to be an unbiased critical review. By asking for payment for his articles, he gained financially from positive reviews and gave the appearance of being able to be bought—no matter that the review was already written and payment was not requested ahead of time. Taking payment for content (from somewhere other than the publishing publication) is wading dangerously into the whirlpool of journalistic ethics.
The ideal reviewer is one that does not have any sort of connection to the restaurant other than as anonymous diner; no friends in the kitchen, no relatives on the floor, no hand in the till, nothing. The ideal reviewer remains anonymous, does not announce their arrival or chat up the server or look for free food. The ideal reviewer is going out there to have an experience that anyone coming in off the street would have, and the reader should be able to trust that if they go into the same restaurant, they might reasonably expect to have the same experience.
But here’s the thing: Bill Spurr has never been an ideal reviewer. He replaced his insufferable predecessor with a breezy, light-hearted column that shared family dining experiences, and found an instant readership—here was a guy who never claimed to know anything about food; a guy who just went out with wife Kath and son BJ to have a meal and tell you all about it. The “Hey! He’s one of us!” approach. Plenty of people seemed to enjoy that approach, certainly enough to warrant his column’s longevity.
As far as anonymity, he covered sports and did features for the paper—hard to be completely unknown, especially as his pictures were widely circulated on the internet and just recently, you could actually watch him do a bit of news on the Herald website.
So if a restaurant critic isn’t knowledgeable about food, and isn’t really anonymous, and gives the appearance of bias, what does that leave?