The problem with the public perception of journalism is that it means different things to different people. We all have lofty notions about what it is – truth to power, voice to the voiceless, that kind of thing – but in our deepest darkest hearts we all want it to be a good kicking being delivered to someone or something that we don’t like. Look on social media and anytime a journalist shares a story you will have people leaping into the comments to tell them that this isn’t journalism, or that this isn’t news. Social media is also awash in degraded jpegs of George Orwell with his thoughts on the topic: Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations. As an aside, Orwell wrote for the Observer and his commissioning editor once said that Orwell ‘could not blow his nose without moralising on the state of the handkerchief industry’. In other words, there is such a thing as too much critical thinking.
If you fancy musing on the state of drinks journalism today, take a look at the top ten most read stories on the Spirits Business website for 2022.
10. Glenmorangie unveils playful redesign
9. Mast-Jägermeister invests in Teremana Tequila
8. Macallan debuts oldest whisky
7. Trade calls out Fkng Bourbon’s sexist marketing
6. Rum sales reach £1bn to overtake whisky
5. US distiller calls IWA claim ‘ridiculous’
4. Johnnie Walker unveils utopian collection
3. Diageo calls for injunction against Bulleit lookalike
2. Johnnie Walker bottles Sherry finished Black Label
1. Johnnie Walker re-releases Black Label with Air-Ink
Feel free to sift through those and see how many you would classify as news. I’d classify them all as news; this is the drinks industry, so any kind of product launch, innovation, M&A, trade figures, etc is news. You might say that the two stories centred on conflicts – cultural and legal – are the ones most worthy of the title of news. I’d say it’s all the same thing, and given that so many of the most-read stories on such a significant industry publication are about product launches (three of the top four solely focus on Johnnie Walker releases), a lot of other people obviously feel the same way. People like to read about new whiskies and look at nice photos of them.
There is nothing wrong with renosing a press release and publishing it, because that quite often is exactly what the people want, and for many journalists, that is what you get told to do by your editor. You don’t get to offer your two cents on every story; a product being launched is news; saying it’s overpriced ugly crap is opinion. They are two very different things. Sure, you can channel George Orwell and stand down the front at the launch event asking why they charge thousands for whisky when many are homeless and starving, but you won’t achieve a thing, aside from making yourself look mental. Not everything you write about the drinks world has to be a hard-hitting exposé of shady practices.
Speaking of hard-hitting exposés of shady practices, Ex-Diageo head of outreach Dr Nick Morgan wrote a lengthy piece on the Master Of Malt blog in which he cursed ‘the dogma of kindness’. Detailing (without giving specific examples) how the industry courts writers, influencers, and journos alike, Morgan lamented the lack of critical thinking in modern whisky writing. Without criticism, he wrote, there is only marketing: “How is it that so many have allowed themselves to become mere mouthpieces of marketers, product pluggers pecuniarily parroting press releases? It’s a messy story involving sometimes both inducements and payments, often leading to a web of undisclosed conflicts of interest.”
For the record, I am 100% here for Morgan’s Jerry Maguire-style retirement epiphany and subsequent raging against the infernal machine that is drinks marketing and promotion, but it did feel quaintly idealistic – I’m not sure anyone who worked in the industry for decades could or should write about brands ‘turning their backs on the traditional values of Scotch whisky’ with a straight face. For all the posturing and lore-stoking, those ‘traditional values’ were purely about selling a potentially dangerous intoxicant to as many people as possible. This is the drinks industry we are talking about, not Greenpeace.
Broadly, I think that while Morgan makes a lot of fair points (and he builds on these in his excellent, biting book Everything You Wanted To Know About Whisky), I don’t think anyone should lose any sleep over close relationships between the drinks media and drinks industry. The Spirits Business list above shows that really, what the news-hungry whisky-loving public want is to find out what’s new. This is why influencers, another target of Morgan’s ire, work so well – they present the product, give you the key info you need, and package it all in a nice, visually pleasing post. There may be gnashing of teeth about influencers getting whisky when they have shown zero interest or appreciation of it in the past, but really that is no different to brands taking an advert in a mainstream publication. This is modern advertising and promotion.
Morgan’s piece got a mixed reception. In the whisky community there was a general sense of agreement, among the drinks media it was less well received. Award-winning drinks journalist Felipe Schrieberg wrote a piece rebutting many of Morgan’s assertions. Just as Morgan’s post was overly cynical, Schrieberg’s presented a somewhat rose-tinted view of the relationships between drinks writers and the drinks industry, claiming that what Morgan called a ‘cacophony of kindness’ existed because ‘almost everyone working in whisky is really, really lovely’. An eyebrow-raising claim from someone who was pivotal in the dethroning of Jim Murray. But he did make some excellent points about the nature of being a freelance spirits writer – you take the gigs as they come. It may be profiling a distillery, hosting a tasting, doing MC work, writing tasting notes, consulting on brands – you take the work because this is your trade. Not everything you do is going to be Watergate.
As for my own experience of working in a newspaper, I would see no issue with any journalist taking paid trips to distilleries or accepting free bottles – do you think restaurant reviewers pay out of their own pocket for every lunch? Do travel writers pay for the dozens of holidays a year they go on? Do music reviewers pay for every album? Cinema reviewers for every ticket? I could go on and on – if you think getting something for free renders you incapable of clear-eyed analysis, then almost all modern criticism is corrupted. Where whisky blogging is concerned, what of sample shares between mates – are they less valid because the reviewer didn’t pay for the whisky? Are we more likely to give a positive review because a mate sent it to us and we don’t want to seem ungrateful? Do the insidious effects of kindness worm their way into that equation?
After the two pieces on the MoM blog, Drinks International went for the jugular on both, pointing out that as Morgan worked for Diageo for 20 years he ‘was complicit in, if not instrumental to, the very structure he deplores’. They then went on to claim that on one occasion Morgan attempted to censor a Drinks International article (about Haig Club, of all things). They also hammered Schrieberg’s niceness claim: “The argument that the drinks media doesn’t criticise brands because everyone in the industry is ‘really nice’. If we’re just writing positive things for that reason, then we aren’t doing our jobs.”
My only real issue with Morgan’s piece is that it creates an air of paranoia and suspicion – you start to see touts and shills where before you just saw a drinks writer trying to hold down a job. Everyone sharing a photo of a bottle they were sent, or hosting a corporate gig, or conducting a tasting online for a brand, is in the crosshairs and subjected to Salem-esque whispers about their independence. This is a very small number of people we are talking about – I can think of only a dozen or so journalists and writers who cover whisky specifically, so without anyone being named in the piece, it is anybody’s guess which ones Morgan meant.
For those of us on the outside of the media and the industry it covers, it’s fine to imagine that were we full-time drinks writers, we would be painfully pure of heart and never take a freebie, or a gig within the industry. Perhaps our pure and shining hearts would keep us warm when our electricity gets cut off.
As for critical thinking in whisky writing, you could run a magazine that hammers any and all comers but please explain to me how you will fund it. You need ads, so while you are out burning bridges with the industry you depend on for work – either directly through ads or indirectly through stories – doors are also being closed and leads lost because you have been such a prick. There has to be balance, and compromise. Also, a lot of drinks writing is lifestyle, feature work – its purpose is to inform, to educate, to entertain. I don’t think a constant state of attack is what anyone wants in a whiskey mag.
Another aspect of modern journalism to consider is how litigious the world now is – I know of one food writer who has been the subject of a defamation suit over a fairly benign restaurant review he wrote. That’s not always the price of criticism, but it is still a possibility. A few decades back the adage was ‘print and be damned’ but those days are gone. Dwindling ad revenue and the public’s distaste for subscription models means the media lives in dread of litigation. Would Morgan’s piece have been published in one of the big industry magazines? Would it have been published on the blog of a massive spirits retailer ultimately owned by drinks giant AB InBev – as that is what Master Of Malt is – had it focussed less on the plethora of alleged client journalists and more on the industry that courts them?
If there are people taking backhanders to write favourable things about drinks, I would like to see the evidence. Just like when Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible would appear and people would line up on social media to make very serious allegations about his independence or how he came to choose his top three, I have yet to see any hard proof of this great corruption. As for a lack of criticism about the liquids themselves – reviews are one person’s opinion. You cannot argue it. I have only had a tiny handful of whiskeys that I would consider bad. I’ve had bland, overpriced, nondescript, boring – but I’ve never emptied a bottle down the sink. Do we all need to be more critical? I don’t think so – perhaps because I tend to follow blogs and social media more than traditional publications, but I can attest that out here in the hinterlands of whisky culture the discourse is in rude health.