Blog: The price of integrity
Compared to, say, our sister publications the Mirrors in the floor upstairs, we're a small newspaper. Although we punch above our weight with our location and audience, that doesn't translate to a big bucks in the budget.
And the pounds we do shell out, beyond the salaries of our staffers, certainly don't stretch to frequent lavish meals out at top London restaurants.
That doesn't stop our readers being interested in them however, which leaves us with a problem. How do we offer commentary and coverage without bleeding ourselves financially dry?
Fortunately the PR industry steps in, setting up a seemingly limitless stream of invitations to review eateries, taste products or chat to movers and shakers in the food sector.
We, like the majority of other publications and outlets, accept their hospitality. In exchange they get coverage, although the risk they take is that those column inches will be negative rather than those favoured by their clients.
The reason I mention all of this is I approached a well-known central London restaurant earlier this week to see whether it would be possible to review their offering in light of the forthcoming publication of a cookbook.
No, replied the group's CEO: "We have always let the press and reviewers visit our restaurants under their own steam, it is a part of our philosophy, they must be impartial. I hope that you understand."
Fair enough. I would never quibble with anyone's right to refuse me entry to their restaurant although sadly it means we're unlikely to get round to reviewing it any time soon.
But I am troubled by the implication, namely that those who eat for free lack impartiality and this is why.
I don't believe the impartiality of Mark Kermode's critical writings on film or Michael Billington's assessment of all things theatrical depends on whether they paid for their seat in the cinema or auditorium.
Suggesting food is different seems to damn it as a lower artform. If it's all about the money, perhaps critics should simply weigh what's put in front of them, or calculate a penny-to-calorie rate and use that to score the dinner.
How good was your meal? Awful, I paid £20 for only 100 calories.
I've had good and bad experiences in restaurants whether I'm paying or not and I have never had and qualms about publicising them.
To only write glowing reviews would be counter-productive. What our readers want is sensible, honest, entertaining commentary. To ignore that would be foolish.
And the only coverage of any use to a restaurant is an appearance in such a respected space, risking an appearance alongside one or two stars.
Impartiality is key, but it's down to the reviewer not the size of their chequebook.