Stephen Jardine: Online censorship hard to swallow

'What is written online is here to stay'. Picture: TSPL
'What is written online is here to stay'. Picture: TSPL
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PEOPLE used to claim there was no such thing as bad publicity. And anyway, if you didn’t like something said about you in print, just a day later it would be wrapping fish and chips and largely forgotten.

The digital revolution has changed all that.

This week a French blogger was fined thousands of euros for a negative review of a restaurant. But it wasn’t the content of the criticism that attracted the penalty but rather the title which made it prominent on Google searches.

Caroline Doudet wrote the online review last year under the title “The place to avoid in Cap-Ferret: Il Giardino”. That warning sent it soaring to fourth in the search results when the restaurant’s name was typed into Google.

The restaurant’s owner claimed such high visibility was damaging business and a judge agreed, ordering the blogger to pay damages and to change the title to drop the article down search engines.

Doudet has deleted the article and says she now wishes she’d just walked out of the restaurant and never written it in the first place. But that is the problem with the digital age; what is written online is here to stay.

The relationship between restaurateurs and food critics has always been tricky. If the review is positive it gets framed and quoted endlessly. If it’s negative, it’s dismissed as being ill-informed or just plain wrong. In fact, the worst reviews end up being shared and spreading like wildfire.

Last year, Jay Rayner visited a London restaurant and had an unfortunate experience. “A banana ketchup has the honour of being the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth since the incident with the washing-up liquid when I was seven,” he wrote.

That is the sound of a reputation being shattered in just one sentence.

Down the years, restaurants have closed following a thrashing from the critics, but so far the courts have always viewed the criticism as fair comment. The digital revolution is showing some worrying signs of changing that.

Last month a battle between a restaurant and an Australian food critic over a withering review ended with the newspaper involved being forced to pay £349,000 in compensation. The restaurant closed after the review and one of the owners said it had driven her to the brink of suicide. Although the review appeared in print, the size of the damages was linked to the fact that the injury was perpetuated on the internet.

The next step will inevitably be chefs using Google’s new “right to be forgotten” requests to remove criticism about them in previous establishments.

All this is worrying. Restaurant reviewers have a responsibility to be fair and balanced in what they write but they are paid to entertain and inform us at the same time. Not everyone will like the results, but trying to rewrite history is simply censorship.