17 Dec 2012

The Natalie Maclean case and ethics in wine writing

Wine site Palate Press says wine writer Natalie Maclean "appears to be building her reputation, and her business, on the work of others". In this latest piece she is accused of reproducing other writers' reviews without properly attributing them. Secondly, commenters below the line also accuse her of charging winemakers a fee if they want her to review their wines.

I'm not commenting on the specifics of the Natalie Maclean case, but in general terms the first point seems pretty clear – it's a given that if you quote from someone else's work, at the very least you properly cite the source. News organisations do this all the time – newspapers report a story or quote that was previously an 'exclusive' in another paper – and they cite (or should do) the original paper somewhere in their article ('…the Sun reported'). So that's it. Attribute sources properly. Even better, make your own content where you can.

But point 2) raises some more interesting stuff, some grey areas. Average readers might rightly be shocked by the thought of a writer asking for a fee to review someone's wine. But how widespread is this? How many other wine writers have taken something in exchange – not necessarily cash, maybe a gift or hospitality or whatever – in return for running a review?

Writing as a profession has to be commercially viable. How you make it so is the challenge.

Well respected wine awards might choose to charge fees for people to submit their wines. Publications (not just wine) might give more editorial space to advertisers. Wine writers might be paid by retailers to write for their magazines or appear in their marketing brochures (incidentally the pressure to do this might grow as writers try to make a living while readers increasingly expect not to pay for content).

Wine writers often have their travel to vineyards paid for by someone. That someone, maybe a winemaker/region/PR, is doing so in the knowledge they'll get much sought-after editorial space in exchange. They're not doing it for the greater good.

Which of the above points are ethically sound or not? And for example with the last point about travel to vineyards etc, what's the best alternative? Writers paying their own way for all their samples and travel? Then who's going to be able to afford to be a wine writer? There's a serious point behind all those red-trouser jokes after all – the wine industry might be more accessible than it once was, but it still comes across as about as diverse as the current cabinet.

This raises the kind of issues freelance journalist George Monbiot talks about here, in his decision to disclose all of his payments throughout the year.

Once criticism gets commercial, what's ethical and what isn't?

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