December 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on Natalie Maclean’s “Predicament”

Poor Natalie. Just when you think you have the world by the by the tail, you end up with a hand full of… uh... disappointment.
First off, no one has cited Natalie for plagiarism. The main charge is copyright infringement. That means she reproduced material that belonged to someone else with neither attribution nor permission, and she did it to help earn a profit. Plagiarism is putting your name on someone else’s material. But how is this so different from taking someone else’s work and displaying it in such a way that it will likely be construed as your own? The material that was appropriated was taken from an LCBO publication. Did the LCBO give permission to ‘borrow’ the reviews? Did the authors? One of the first things they teach you in journalism school is attribution. If you didn’t write it, then putting the author’s name there is NOT OPTIONAL. More importantly, the LCBO always attributes material to the authors, so Natalie purposely removed or neglected to add names to the reviews.
As wine writers, we are journalists. And we are consumer advocates. There really is only one currency in this business: our credibility. We gain credibility by sticking to the rules, by not taking ‘pay-offs’ and by avoiding ANY suspicion of bias. Some purists suggested that accepting free wine, food, trips, etc. is improper. For some reason this standard is freely levied at wine writers but not at others. Do you expect car writers to buy the cars they review? Do restaurant critics pick up their own bill after every meal? (Good example here: Many restaurant critics go out of their way to be anonymous to eliminate any possibility of bias or favourable treatment and their publishers pay the tab.) Reviewers have a simple mandate: I may write about your product -- for better or worse -- and if you choose to make your products available for that purpose, thank you; I will do my utmost to be fair. It’s the cost of doing business on both sides. It’s in the winery’s best interest to get us to favourably review their products. Sending a bottle or two to my doorstep is a calculated investment for them, and they’re glad to do it. It can mean some very cheap publicity. They also understand that I might pan the product -- it’s a two way street.
Now since, I/we accept ‘freebies’, how do we distance ourselves from bias and conflict of interest, etc.? We simply do. That too is not optional. However, if I put a restriction in place, or ask for ‘more’ in order to do a review, I’d better be very careful. There’s no doubt that having a high profile writer review a product can be ‘worth your while’, as one commenter put it. Natalie’s mistake in this case was to demand a subscription fee to produce a review. That is very different from saying up front “I have a tasting fee of $xx per bottle, no guarantees.” That is fair and it’s transparent. To say, “I won’t review your wines unless you buy a copy of my book” is usury.
So Natalie, I know you’re not a trained journalist. I know you have to have some means of ‘gate keeping’ to keep the flood of wines to your door at a reasonable ebb. But what you’ve done by appropriating reviews is unethical. Allowing readers to believe that the content is yours is unethical. Charging people a fee to read those reviews is unethical. Demanding that wineries, agents, etc. subscribe to your newsletter to qualify for a review is unethical. Suggesting that your reviews could have a favourable result is in a gray area, but it smacks of something unethical.
The “world’s best drinks writer”, perhaps, but at my college – a writing school -- Ms Maclean would get an “F”.
Here’s a good, seemingly fair minded write-up: