We must not pull our punches

on 05 April, 2013

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once did a very funny sketch as Derek and Clive about what they considered the worst job in the world. From memory, their choice involved working for Jayne Mansfield – I’ll spare you the anatomical details – rather than being a traffic warden, refuse collector, VAT inspector, estate agent, politician or journalist. And yet most people would place these half-dozen professions at the bottom of the career ladder.

Post-Leveson, we hacks are particularly despised.

The general perception of journalists has never been good – think of Humbert Wolfe’s famous comment that: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank god) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to” – and it’s getting worse. Lazy, venal, unscrupulous, ill-informed, on the take: add your own adjectives to describe the Fourth Estate.

Do they mean us? I hesitate to say that mine is a noble calling, up there with nursing, social work or the priesthood, but I strongly believe that good journalism has a vital place to play in a democracy. I’ve heard two stirring examples in the past week or so, both of them on the much-criticised BBC.

First, there was Eddie Mair’s “bicycle crash” interview with Boris Johnson on The Andrew Marr Show, when Mair accused an uncharacteristically flustered Mayor of London of being “a nasty piece of work” after a cool and forensic analysis of his failings as a journalist (ironically), husband and politician.

Second, there was Winifred Robinson on You & Yours grilling Peter Shakeshaft of the Wine Investment Association, an organisation that claims it is trying to prevent fraud in the wine industry, while condoning cold calling and what Robinson called “high-pressure sales techniques”.

Both Mair and Robinson were unwilling to be fobbed off with bluster, prepared statements and platitudes. Journalists are often accused of being cynics, but I prefer the word sceptic. It is our job to question people in positions of influence and, if necessary, upset them. As a tutor told me on a news-writing course years ago, we should constantly ask ourselves, “why is this person lying to me?”.

I think it’s significant that Shakeshaft was put on the spot by a general journalist, rather than a wine writer. My esteemed colleague Jim Budd does a great job of exposing wine “investment” companies, but he is an exception. Most of us think it is more important to taste wine samples than tackle unsavoury practices in our industry.

That’s why most wine journalism is uncontroversial stuff.

The same is generally true of wine blogging, although some writers appear to be emboldened by the absence of an editor (and lawyer) at their elbow. Twitter sometimes serves the same purpose, freeing Tweeps from what Germans call “scissors in the head”.

No one is asking us to be Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein or even Nick Davies, the man who did such fine work on phone hacking, but I sometimes think the relationship between wine writers on the one hand and producers, importers and retailers on the other is too cosy.

Part of the problem is that to write well about wine, you need to be close to the product. I’ve never had much truck with the utilitarian view that “it’s all about what’s in the bottle”, to the exclusion of any context or personal contact.

The drones who sit in hotel rooms or the corner of tastings tapping endless notes into a computer are missing the point of wine writing, part of which is to visit vineyards and talk to the people who make what’s in our glasses.

But maybe a little distance is no bad thing. Stepping back from the wine industry and looking at it with the eye of a true journalist, rather than behaving like “fans with typewriters”, to use the broadcaster Andrew Neil’s phrase, would benefit the very people our words are supposed to serve: namely, our readers.

It’s easy to argue that wine writing doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things. When it’s just a list of boring supermarket wines on specious deals, I would agree with you.

That kind of wine writing is little more than a PR outlet, what Nick Davies calls “churnalism”. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

There is no shortage of subjects that are worthy of real journalistic analysis, from climate change to labour conditions, the grey market to the emergence of China, counterfeiting to bulk wine sales, supermarket shenanigans to the hyperbolic, point-driven manner in which most fine wine is now traded.

That doesn’t mean there is no place for tasting notes and informed judgements. After all, most readers want to know what to drink. But real wine writing should do more than simply review bottles. To put it bluntly, it should inform, engage, enthuse and, on occasion, upset.

Proper, engaged, knowledgeable coverage has a powerful role to play in our new, uncertain, shifting world of wine. If that entails lambasting bad wine, exposing fraud or calling someone “a nasty piece of work”, then so be it.

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