The taking of a freebie

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Recently there has been an enormous amount of hand wringing, commenting, denigration and argument about whether accepting a free meal/product invalidates your opinion as a writer. The instigator of the most recent blather was the doyen of eating out whilst getting paid for it (and one of my personal writing icons), Jay Rayner with this tweet:

Following this comment every other food critic, restaurateur and (you guessed it) food blogger, put on their clomping sized nines and entered the argument. And now I’m writing a bloody blog post on the subject as I think we need to stop for a minute and cease this self-gratifying naval gazing (and I haven’t reviewed anywhere for a while, so I need content).

Let’s interview me because this is my blog and guess what, the content is driven solely by my opinion; then you can all write comments on the bottom and we can prolong this argument across several social media platforms for the rest of the week. (If you want another blogger’s opinion on the matter/to read something far more eloquent, check out The Hungry Manc’s take on freebies HERE).

Most important question – have you ever taken a freebie?
Yes I’ve accepted freebies and I continue to accept them. When I started this blog my aspirations were to become the next Marina O’Loughlin, writing coyly witty prose from the food frontlines and never truly exposing my identity. Then came the crashing realisation that eating out regularly enough to create continued, interesting content was prohibitively expensive. Along came a restaurant asking me to pop in, try the food, give them my opinion and lo and behold, I now regularly accept a couple of meals/products a month and pay for the rest out of my own pocket.

How can your opinion still be valid if you accept a freebie?
My gut reaction to that question is ‘who the fuck cares?’ I’m a food blogger, I write my blog as a creative outlet/as a hobby/for fun and because I value my own opinions far too highly. Compared to a national newspaper I have a tiny readership, who can chose to ignore my opinion or go read someone else’s if they don’t like what I have to say. There are more important things to get stressed about as to whether my opinion is still valid after a freebie.

But the sensible side of me will give you a proper answer – firstly; it’s a bit rude of you to question as to whether my opinion can be bought for any amount of money. I’m an educated, sentient person with (I’d like to think) some intelligence, so please don’t undermine me.

Secondly; I ensure I mark any restaurant/product that I have received for free much more harshly than those I pay for myself (which I make clear on my page regarding freebies).

And thirdly; I make it starkly clear on my blog that I will accept freebies and I always state in my article if the review is resultant of a freebie – there’s nothing like a good old bit of transparency. Oh and I’ll be pretty critical about it if it’s shit, as I do like a good moan (I also mention that on my freebies page too).

Why do you accept freebies then?
I don’t have an expenses account, an income stream related business plan that puts aside money to send myself to new openings, rich parents or deep pockets. Next month I won’t even have this poorly-paid charity job (please send small violins and people to wail on my front step for me).

Don’t you think it’s morally wrong to accept a freebie?
No. If a restaurant/company wants to market their product through sending out an invite for me to dine at their expense, that’s a good marketing plan. I would think it morally wrong for me not to mention that I received said meal for free or to mark them in the same way I would for a meal I paid for myself, where the kitchen had no idea they were being reviewed. Do printed publications make a point of telling you that all those products they review in their ‘best of’ pages have been sent in by PR companies or taken to the journalists by wide-eyed PR girls on press visits?

But doesn’t that mean the content on your blog is controlled by public relations people?
No. This is a blog, ergo it’s my opinion. I choose where to eat and the freebies I want to accept. I write, proof and edit every post I write – there is no sign off, content control, passing under the noses of or ‘can you just change this for the client’. There are no paid for posts, advertorials or PR written posts – I don’t even accept guest bloggers or host advertising. I write it, it gets published, it will be full of spelling mistakes and bad grammar and I don’t care if some PR’s client doesn’t like it. I will not change or take down a post for anyone (bar taking some swear words out because they upset my Mum. Sorry Mum).

So you admit that your opinion is less valid than a newspaper critic?
Do critics openly tell you that the chef they are reviewing is their friend, or the guy opening the new Asian fusion place is an ex-school buddy? No. So, can we therefore argue that my opinion is now more valid because I am transparent and state which meals are free or if I know the owner?

Er, who actually cares? We all need to get over ourselves and realise there is more to life than arguing about the validity of an opinion. If you don’t like my opinion, read someone else’s blog/paper/magazine/writing on the toilet wall (but please carry on reading my blog because I need the attention).

So there’s nothing wrong in asking for a free meal?
That’s a different matter altogether. I personally don’t ask somewhere to give me a meal for free, mainly because I lack the social interaction skills or confidence. I personally think it’s a bit cheeky to go around blagging people; I wouldn’t do it in any other aspect of my life, so I won’t do it with my blog.

Should bloggers adhere to a code of conduct?
No. I believe bloggers should have manners and be transparent – but they’re the basic ground rules that all publications (and every single person on this planet) should adhere to.

Blogging sprang up to give you, me and the man down the road a voice. Blogging is free speech and to regulate it would strangle or constrain what people are saying. You’re going to read some blogs that are poorly written, some whose opinion you don’t agree with and some that are down right offensive – but use your intelligence as a reader to work out who you like, who you agree with and who writes in a way that makes you want to eat their words off the computer screen.

We all need to remember that a blog and a restaurant review are just personal opinion. My taste bubs will no doubt be very different to yours and there are a multitude of variables which will mean my experience of a place differs wildly to yours.

And really – there are far more important things in the world to worry about than whether my (or anyone else’s) opinion has been invalidated because someone gave me a free burger. Let’s all stop taking ourselves too seriously and start talking about the things that really matter:

People who don’t have access to the justice/freedom we have.
Young people without a home or future.
People who aren’t safe in their own homes.
Those who have seen everything they hold dear destroyed.
Those who care for others.
Those making dreams come true for poorly children.
Supporting those who fight for our freedom.
Protecting the environment.
Getting creative to change the world.

Now go find your own causes. Use your voice to change the world, not bitch about those in it.