Are wine critics blurring ethical boundaries?

ASK ANYONE WHO is trained as a journalist about professional ethics and you will almost certainly find yourself in a lengthy conversation on the topic. In my experience this is particularly the case if the journalist comes from North America, where ethical guidelines are beaten into budding reporters the moment they first set foot in journalism school.

It is for this reason the recent focus on some wine critics’ activities surrounding tasting events gives me cause for concern. This week James Suckling has been scrutinised for possibly taking payment to taste wines for the Quebec wine board, Société des alcools du Québec. And in late 2011 the wine press was stirred into a frenzy over allegations involving Pancho Campo MW charging Spanish wineries for access to The Wine Advocate’s review Jay Miller, among other things.

Whether or not any genuinely unethical behaviour took place is still to be determined. It might not have happened at all, it could all have been an honest misunderstanding or perhaps the ethical boundaries were so blurred no one thought twice about it. Or, perhaps, it was indeed unethical and those involved thought they could get away with it. It is not for me to draw conclusions without knowing all of the facts.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that clearly needs to be discussed in the wine trade. From a journalist’s point of view, editorial independence is the bedrock of the profession. Without it, we have no credibility.

Being paid to do a job, such as writing reviews for a magazine, is one thing, but to be paid to review wine for an organisation that either produces the wine or sells it is another matter altogether. Such a relationship could lead to biased reviews and, given the value of the wine market, any bouts of impropriety would be damaging to those working in wine journalism.

It is one thing to receive samples from wineries, distributors and retailers for the purpose of reviewing (as is the case for music and film reviewers), but it is another thing to be given freebies and kickbacks that could sway a critic’s opinion.

If the allegations are true, it is a sign the wine press needs to take a long look at itself and consider developing a code of ethics for writers to abide by. This would be no small feat. But if achieved, it would go a long way to setting standards for everyone to follow.

Photo: Patou

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