I published an article on Monday on the Guardian Comment is Free, on my personal take on the new allergy laws. As a coeliac, it’s something I welcome, as I said in the article. But boy, was there some backlash. One chef even emailed me personally with a link to his blog where he had trashed me and my piece (yep, I know – creepy) and then proceeded to make derogatory comments on Twitter. I do regret that my article didn’t provide enough clarity that my mention of Michel Roux Jr. (as opposed to Albert, who did sign the Telegraph letter) was due to a BBC Food and Drink feature that I’d written about on this blog last year. I saw the Telegraph letter as a continuation of the same dismissive attitude towards those with allergies and illnesses, which is why I made the link.
However, with hindsight, I can see that neither I nor the editors made that clear enough (particularly with the inclusion of a massive photo of Michel Roux Jr!) and I left myself open to accusations of being sloppy or not checking facts. Even when I’d done my “below the line” response and the Guardian had amended the article to mention Albert, rather than Michel, some people just couldn’t let it go. I’m not going to expose the person in question – it’s not my style to trash individuals on a public forum, I’ll leave that to those who don’t have any journalistic ethics. But it has taught me something about resilience, and it has certainly taught me to try and look at what I write with a more dispassionate eye.
Sometimes, as a writer you can get so caught up in things, particularly when you’re passionate about your subject and it affects you personally, that you forget to look at your work with a reader’s eye. As an editor, I’m used to doing this, but it’s harder to do it with your own work.
Now I’ve been on the sharp end, I’m more inclined to be sympathetic with other journalists. We’re human (something I wonder if those people who leave the nastier, more personal comments and tweets actually remember) and we do make mistakes, we don’t always get it right. That’s why having a world below the line is a good thing – it keeps us accountable.
I do engage below the line, because I think it’s part of the deal nowadays, a journalist can’t pretend to know everything and be the last word. I think I’ve got a bit more sympathy with the industry now as well, mainly from reading some of the more reasonable comments and accounts from chefs, servers and restauranteurs and hearing their side.
Yes, I think that some of the celebrity chefs who signed that letter are still being rather precious over it, but I can’t deny that for the ordinary restaurant owner, the new regs might be a bit scary. Nobody wants to get sued, and the vast majority of decent professionals would not want to make someone ill. Although I do think there are still some deniers out there who would happily sneak flour in the food of someone who asks for gluten free, just to prove a point, and that’s why this debate needs to be had. It’s not a bad thing that it’s all coming out in the open – better that than ongoing seething resentment on the part of chefs and diners alike.