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Integrity of content

Time for a rant. This time, the object of my disapproval is the journalistic profession, and specifically as it applies to wine. I believe, rather naïvely you might think, in integrity of content. That is, when you say something as a writer, it’s what you actually think, and you are saying it because you think it is important or interesting.

Most media outlets these days lack this integrity of content. They print what they think people want to hear. The sorts of stories that are featured and the way they are covered is designed to fit with the perceived expectations, prejudices and interests of their readership. How much space is allotted to each story is governed not by any assessment of the importance of the story, but its the potential entertainment value. News outlets are serving up news as entertainment. As I write I’m sitting on a train, surrounded by half a dozen people reading newspapers. You can guess the way coverage is slanted by knowing the editorial policy of the paper – as an aside, I always find it amusing when I see blokes reading the Daily Mail, a paper so evidently pitched at middle-England females. Most of what these people will be reading is completely irrelevant to them, and is probably not really newsworthy, but it entertains them.

This is also true of wine journalism, which has lost its way badly in recent years. Very few wine journalists say – or are allowed to say – what they really think. In their newspaper columns they are expected to recommend the sorts of wines that their editors think people will like – those that are readily available in the major retail outlets such as supermarkets and high street wine shops. Thus the potential pool for recommendations encompasses only a small fraction of wines actually made, and perhaps an even smaller fraction of wines that are actually interesting.

Look at it another way. If I was writing a motor column and the editor said to me, ‘No more coverage of sporty, expensive performance cars – cut the column inches on Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin and the like – just stick to the family saloons’, then I think I’d walk. But there’s a slew of wine journos who bright eyed and bushy tailed, step up to the plate and bang on about how great the latest 3 for 2 branded wines are at supermarket X. They don’t really think this, I suspect, unless they really do have terrible palates and a horrific lack of imagination and almost no spirit of enquiry. But they’ve entered into this soul-destroying collusion: I’ll say what you think your readers want to hear if you will give me a public platform and a way of earning a living out of wine. This is crossing over to the dark side.

The challenge for all wine writers is to maintain integrity of content, in the face of having to earn a living out of writing about wine. In the long run, any writer with a degree of self-respect and an intellect that’s sharper than a donkeys won’t be satisfied by having to compromise their content in the sorts of ways we’ve been discussing. Yes, to a degree this is a line drawing exercise: all of us filter what we say to a degree – this is inevitable when we have to transfer our thought processes into the written word, in itself a significant filtering process. But I would maintain that there is a useful and important distinction to be made between saying more or less what we genuinely think (this is what I want from a journalist), and saying what we think others want to hear.

I think this current phase of ‘let’s pretend’ wine journalism won’t last for long. The pseuds and incompetents who currently spout nonsense will have had their day, and editors will realise that their readers have tired of this veneer-like superficial wine coverage and genuinely prefer to read writers who say what they think, even if you can’t get all the wines they recommend with your weekly grocery shop.

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