Sunday, 26 June 2011

"Eet Ees NOT Too SOHLTEE!"

A long, long time ago in a Visa Card ad with a restaurant setting, Zhang Ziyi infuriated a chef with the complaint, "De sup is too saltee." The pissed-off chef yells his denial and set his kitchen staff on her. A re-enactment of the restaurant fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ensued. Though the place was trashed, Zhang emerged triumphant and hurled a Visa Card to a waiter - "for the 'extras'".

In 2008, at a restaurant in Taiwan, a similar tableau unfolded but this time the chef - or rather, the restaurant - won.

A food and lifestyle blogger who visited the restaurant not only complained about salty food, but also of cockroaches in the kitchen and the owner who allowed indiscriminate parking near his premises. When the owner heard about the review, he sued her for defamation.

The judge ruled in the restaurant's favour on the grounds that the blogger had gone too far with her review. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and ordered to pay the restaurant about US$7,000 for losses her review may have caused.

This sounds... kind of familiar... except that nothing about that fishy case has come up so far.

I have not read the review, but I feel the judgement handed down was a bit heavy-handed. Making sweeping statements about the food based on one dish is reckless (unless it's the only dish served by the establishment), though I feel the roach part is valid. It was just one review by one person; other diners may beg to differ.

So can a food blog, a chronological journal of one's eating experiences with anecdotes of bad food and bad hygiene for a particular day, be defamatory? Is it unfair and unobjective to say something tastes "bad" when it, well, tastes "bad"? Tastebuds generally don't lie.

Things change all the time in restaurants, and unfortunately for that blogger, that day was perhaps a bad time to visit. Things might have happened afterwards: a visit from a healthy inspector, another customer complaint... the problems that were blogged about may have been solved after the review was published - something a review should include.

Commenting on the case, a Taiwanese lawyer said food bloggers should be "truthful in their commentary", "be fair and objective in their writing", and use photographic evidence to protect themselves. In short, they should be like journalists. But are food bloggers supposed to be journalists? Or will journalism be expected from bloggers in the future, particularly those whose blogs have high page hits?

Will being like journalists actually help protect bloggers from defamation suits?

One way this could have been avoided was not to review the place at all. With the exception of one or two blogs I know of, Malaysian food bloggers don't bother if an overall restaurant experience is sour. But what if a review was paid for, or by invitation? Does one gloss over the flaws, write a "balanced" review, or what?

In the near future, however, I think they'd better be careful when reviewing eating places in Taiwan.

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