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Censorship by Harassment?

You never stop learning; recently I’ve been enlightened as to some of the features that make for a good blog post, and some that don’t. Good blogging is different to journalism, or “wine writing” per se, which is not widely regarded as the cutting edge of investigative journalism (even if the prose itself can be quite cutting at times). Some words that come to mind as I write this that would perhaps describe an admirable blog post include spontaneous, honest, provocative, engaging and stimulating. Feel free to suggest more.

Some of these thoughts have gelled in my mind following a post made by Jamie Goode concerning the wining of a Decanter Trophy by a Chinese wine. In it, Jamie highlighted the winning of the award, contrasted against other opinions on the wine which were quite negative (it having been assessed on blind tasting by Joe Wadsack and Tim French, two people “with palates I respect”, said Jamie). It was all kicked off by this article, by Victoria Moore, who won a Roederer award this year in relation to this column in the Telegraph.

In my opinion, Jamie over-stepped the mark with some of his comments. But that’s OK, after all it was his personal opinion he was expressing, in his honest fashion. It’s up to Jamie to judge where his ‘mark’ is, and he will post according to it, not to my ‘mark’ or any other. I gave some criticism of the research (or lack of) Jamie had undertaken before posting, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. A different point of view would have been to accept that it was never meant to be a heavily researched newspaper article carrying multiple levels of evidence to back up his statement. It was an opinion piece….and it matched many of the features describing good blogging I have listed above; it was certainly honest and provocative. In keeping with that it stimulated a lot of debate, one of the joy of blogs; and whereas I strongly disagreed with some of Jamie’s statements, I would defend his right to make those statements for as long as the debate continued….and for many moons afterwards.

The piece has generated some interest across the internet, such as Nerval’s piece here, where he likens it to wine racism – but note that he is referring to some of the blog comments, not Jamie himself. I’m not sure I agree with Nerval’s opinion though, as I have to confess I thought the comments on Jamie’s blog post included a lot of informed opinion, in some cases based on some knowledge and experience of tasting Chinese wine. I note Nerval doesn’t mention in his blog post whether he has tasted any such wine himself. Nevertheless, as with Jamie, I would defend Nerval’s right to express this opinion. But let’s not go off on a tangent; this isn’t about Nerval.

So returning to Jamie’s post, you will notice I have linked to Victoria Moore, and to Nerval, but not to Jamie’s original post. The reason for this is simple; the post was deleted. Jamie says so here. There’s no strong reason given, although Jamie admits “it upset people”.

It certainly did upset people. And I find some of the reactions the piece generated to be difficult to understand. Let’s look at Decanter for a moment; and perhaps envisage a ‘model’ response to criticism of their Wine Awards. It seems to me that if you have a robust process for wine judging (which is certainly the case at Decanter), when unusual and thus newsworthy results come out in the wash are subject to external criticism you should fall back on your process; for trophy winners at the Decanter World Wine Awards (at which I judge, although I am certainly not important enough to judge at the level this wine attained – I stick to the Loire where we rarely award a gold, never mind a trophy) this would involve blind tasting, multiple tasting panels giving multiple levels of assessment, no information as to country of origin given to tasters, only price band and style, and so on. You have the high ground, so to speak. Stick to it. Issue some well-chosen words, a calm rebuttal, provide clarity on the judging process for those who don’t know it inside-out. Maybe leave it at that?

In this situation, though, something else seems to have happened.

First up, a little rumour regarding a strongly worded interaction between Jamie and Guy Woodward, Decanter editor, on the night of the Roederer awards. To quote Neal Martin, commenting on his Twitter feed – “I keep hearing rumours that @guyawoodward gave @jamiegoode a Chinese burn backstage at the Roederers. Is Gripper Stebson back?” For those outside the UK and unfamiliar with ‘Gripper Stebson’, he was the archetypal school bully in Grange Hill, a long-running and enormously popular children’s television drama about life in an English comprehensive school. Rumour-humour from Neal? Most humour is based in truth of course, and Neal isn’t the only source of reports of a strongly-worded interaction (the phrase I heard was “bollocking”) between Guy and Jamie that evening.

And then, on his blog, before the whole thread was deleted, Jamie wrote of the reaction to the post, describing “Phone calls from the publishing director on a Saturday; bullying and rudeness from the editor and posts from the chairman of the awards…”. It’s clear he took some personal heat for what he wrote. Ultimately Jamie admits to feeling “vulnerable” in a subsequent posting on Twitter: “Going to bed glum – expect people to be fair and objective – maybe expecting too much? Feel vulnerable now”. The next day he deleted the post. What has happened to induce this feeling of deflation, and induce Jamie to go on and delete his Chinese wine post? It looks, from my distant viewpoint, as if Jamie has been hounded out of expressing his opinion, though a process of personal face-to-face interactions, telephone calls and blog posts.

It was perhaps, to my mind, in places, an ill-worded opinion that Jamie expressed, but a few poorly chosen words are no longer the ‘great crime’ here. I am worried that a far greater wrong has been committed, and that is one of censorship by harassment.

14 Responses to “Censorship by Harassment?”

  1. Great post, Chris, as always! I’ve also noticed that Jamie deleted the chinese wine post, but it’s his decision after all. But the reaction of the Decanter editor doesn’t surprise me at all. Unfortunately, that’s something wrong with the wine writers and critics these days. Most of them seem to live in an ivory tower, giving scores amd judgements that everyone else should take them for granted. We know what happens on the Wine Advocate forums, and we’re talking about paying subscribers there.

    Censorship, in all forms, will stay with us forever, in spite of the so-called “freedom of speech”. In some cases, these are just empty concepts meant to give you just an illusion of freedom…that’s sad but that’s how it is. Just my opinion, of course.

  2. Well done for posting this Chris.

    Like you, I felt that Jamie had over-stepped the mark with the tone of his original post. But for Decanter to then leap across it with sleeves rolled up is going too far.

    It has at least reminded me to cancel my subscription. They’ve been piling up unread for far too long anyway.

  3. Chris,
    thank you for the interesting post and for linking to my site.
    Just for the sake of clarity, I didn’t taste the Jiabeilan Cabernet – and my blog post wasn’t strictly about that wine but the reactions to it being awarded a Trophy – and when I spoke of “wine racism” (admittedly a slightly excessive term) I wasn’t by any means referring to people who commented on Wine Anorak, but rather to the numerous comments on the various non-wine media who published the news. (Easily googlable).
    Regarding Jamie again, it’s not the first time he deletes a post on his blog after the discussion goes the wrong way. And if I remember correctly one of the previous times also regarded the DWWA / IWC frictions. While I 100% second your condemnation of the presumed bullying from Decanter, I think 1) Jamie shouldn’t be deleting posts that contain 50 informed comments by various people, let alone with no clarification (he only published one a day or two later, perhaps after people suggested he should justify the deletion in some way), and 2) I think Jamie’s comments were controversial not in their essence but in the fact that he didn’t quite make clear his involvement with IWC. Jamie has been consistently critical of DWWA for reasons I can’t quite grasp, given that DWWA’s rigorous blind tasting is really exactly like that of the IWC, a competition which Jamie in turn fully endorses (being one of the panel chairs there). A lack of full disclosure of Jamie’s professional involvement in one part of the DWWA/IWC equation, combined with his (over-)critical comments and then his deletion of posts puts him, in my opinion, in a questionable position.
    So I would read that deletion in a different light than you: I think he went too far in his comments which weren’t totally impartial, and realised that fact fully after the discussion. Not that I am in any way supporting those vitriolic comments or phone calls from Decanter.

  4. Thanks Ciprian and David for those comments.

  5. Dziękuję, Nerval/Wojciech. I’m sorry your comment didn’t display straight away – for some reason blogger.com decided to place it in the spam (and thus non-posted) folder.

    I think some of your points reiterate those I have made, others are slightly more nuanced. I agree that deleted posts that are clearly of interest – i.e. with 30+ comments – “shouldn’t” happen, but that was the point of the post. It seems to me pressure has been brought to bear here – Jamie wouldn’t delete the post unless, in my opinion, he felt no other way out of the situation. What could have happened to put him in that situation?
    Secondly, the point about the IWC is well made, and it was brought to light in the comments….although I think most of Jamie’s blog readers are probably well aware of his association with the IWC. I think this was a less admirabel aspect of the post….but still not the reason it was deleted, I would think.
    So I disagree with your final comment that deletion came after he realised “he went too far in his comments which weren’t totally impartial”. Jamie doesn’t mind a bit of controversy. There’s more to the story I think. Just my opinion, of course (to quote Ciprian!).

  6. Chris, I agree. If Jamie was really threatened by Decanter as is implied, then this is not only regrettable but actually condemnable. And I think it should be brought to light.

  7. I think the main reason Decanter got so angry was the underlying innuendo in Jamie Goode’s post that the judges somehow knew the identity of the winning wine, and had colluded to award it the trophy – thus totally undermining the integrity of the competition.

    I imagine the Decanter lawyers read Jamie’s post with some interest, as when you bear in mind his close ties to Decanter’s main rival, the IWC, it certainly warrants close scrutiny.

    And as Chris says, this wasn’t the first time Jamie had attacked the DWWA, while at the same time frequently extolling the virtues of the IWC – rather odd, seeing as they are essentially the same competition, although the DWWA overtook the IWC in terms of size some years ago.

  8. Hmmm. So perhaps not censorship by harassment, censorship by threatened legal action?

  9. Put it this way: if I was Decanter’s editor, I’d have sought legal action; there were at least two examples of innuendo (in the defamation sense) in Jamie’s original blog.

  10. Chris – it seems you’re guilty of the same journalistic amateurism as Jamie – namely not doing research. Instead you rely on anecdotal evidence – largely based around a rumour circulating on Twitter, it seems – to insinuate underhand behaviour on the part of Decanter and its editor. Why don’t you simply ask Decanter and/or Jamie what happened, instead of, as Jamie did, smearing them by jumping to conclusions without finding out the full story? And didn’t the Decanter editor post on Jamie’s site in quite strong terms, anyhow? So it’s hardly news that he may or may not have had a similar conversation with Jamie when they met…

    I find it astonishing that you think it’s ‘OK’ for Jamie to go around defamming other wine media simply because he is a blogger and therefore ‘provocative’. So it’s OK for him to call into question the whole integrity of Decanter’s awards, without any evidence (and without revealing that he’s paid by their main rival), and they should just take this lying down? If he did that to my blog/magazine/awards, I know what my response would be…

  11. Steve, thanks for those comments. Responding to your second paragraph first, you seem to have misinterpreted my post as condoning Jamie’s original method and message. I have been at pains in the post to make clear that isn’t the case; that’s why I state in my opinion “Jamie over-stepped the mark”, and that he expressed “an ill-worded opinion”. So I’m not painting this as a black-and-white situation where one side is as pure as the driven snow and the other pure evil, as there are shades of grey here. I think if I would say there was one intention here it was not to remove ‘blame’ on Jamie (nor to criticise more, either) but instead to turn the spotlight from Jamie’s behaviour onto that of Decanter, which is certainly worthy of examination, regardless of how right or wrong Jamie may have been in the wording and intent (and innuendo, as you put it) of his original post. My thoughts on “provocative” and “honest” posts are me trying to view the Chinese wine post in a different light; I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    Sorry if the message seemed to be that this was “largely based around a rumour circulating on Twitter”. I was at the Roederer’s and did hear a first-hand account of what happened, but did not want to disclose that for the sake of the person telling me, so there was more to my post than a Twitter rumour (I don’t think I would have posted *anything* otherwise). Perhaps I should have declared that knowledge, so point taken on that.

  12. I heard, from a very reliable source, that Guy and Jamie actually had quite a cordial discussion about it at the Roederers (ie not a slanging match), but that Jamie got very defensive about the whole thing, and was blustering something about “putting it out there” on his blog to “drive traffic”.

    That doesn’t wash with me.

    The unfortunate thing for Jamie is that:
    a) he has a history of taking potshots at the DWWA – a silly thing to do when he dishes out incessant praise of the IWC; and

    b) he does it in such an unsubtle way.

    If I was the editor of Decanter, I would have torn a strip off Jamie for the mischievous and cack-handed way he handled this issue.

    The five people who awarded that Chinese wine the trophy are five of the most respected palates in the business, and to allude to some sort of collusion in the judging process – or, even worse, to allege that the marketing/commercial team put pressure on them to choose this wine over others – is reprehensible in the extreme.

  13. OK, thanks Anonymous. Some food for thought there. Shades of grey indeed.

  14. I don’t think the reason that Dr. Goode is a chair of another competition has much weight, anyone who regularly reads his blog (well maybe not Mr. Spurrier, who never reads blogs, but did post to Dr. Goode’s blog) would know he is a judge in another competition. I think he was censored.