Restaurant tableAs a child I was always told to eat my dinner and keep my mouth shut; ask no questions, no derogatory comments about greens, no complaints or smart-arsed remarks. Seemingly as an adult that advice might remain shrewd. A year ago a ruling in Belfast’s High Court had journalists, newspaper editors, and commentators choking on their dinner: the newspaper the Irish News was successfully sued in a libel action by the owner of the Italian restaurant Goodfellas for printing a negative review.

When I was a child my mother also used to tell me to be nice to people. As the regulars here know I don’t always stick to that advice. And these politically correct days it’s becoming harder to be less than nice to people without facing censure, or in this case being successfully sued for £25,000 plus legal costs.

The review was written by Caroline Workman in August 2000 and in it she criticised the staff as “unhelpful,” the cola as “flat,” the atmosphere as “smoky” and the chicken marsala “so sweet as to be inedible.” 1 star out of 5. Ouch. Frankly, as a connoisseur of the stuff, I’d have given them negative points for the flat cola alone. The restaurant’s owner, Ciarnan Convery, rightly referred to the piece as a “hatchet job” – it certainly was – and so he sued.

Under laws of libel and defamation a publication is guilty of breaking the law if it lowers you in the opinion of right thinking people. A savage review does indeed satisfy that test. However, you still have possible lines of defence: the best line is that of “justification” – if what you said was true then you can’t be guilty of libel. A more ambiguous defence is that of “fair comment”: if the words are obviously opinion rather than factual assertions, are a matter of “public interest,” and based on facts, then you can also have a defence against libel. The burden of proof then lies with the claimant to argue that the words were published maliciously: perhaps showing that the words were known to be untrue or published out of malicious intentions.

Libel laws are ridiculous, but even under these laws the Irish News should not have been found guilty of libel. Convery’s legal team argued in the original case that the review was “defamatory, damaging and hurtful” and complained that “the Irish News has failed to apologise or print a retraction.” Convery was delighted at the subsequent ruling in his favour, proclaiming that “I think justice has been done.”

No Mr Convery. Justice was not “done.” There is nothing remotely “just” or even sensible about such an infringement of press freedoms, freedom of speech and expression. Frankly the jury should hang their heads in shame. If this decision is not overturned in the Court of Appeal it’s going to have a massive impact, not only on restaurant reviews but on reviews of films, books, CDs, concerts, plays, and more. The case has raised serious questions about the freedom of the press and it’s shocking that the right answer in this instance isn’t obvious even to animals in the zoo.

This was a review by a seasoned food critic. It was an honest assessment of her experience on one particular night at Goodfellas: it was not written in malice but rather in good faith. The reviewer in question had no connection to Goodfellas and nothing to gain by writing a bad review. As Lord Lester said in the appeal hearing: “It did not purport to be a factual report by a food scientist. It was a personal description by a food critic explaining why she formed a poor opinion of the restaurant based on her experience as a customer on the evening in question.” Shouldn’t the media have a right to publish such an opinion piece? I’m loath to argue seriously here because I struggle to imagine anyone but the utterly moronic disagreeing. There is a clear issue of public interest at stake. All manner of media carry reviews – not just of restaurants – and they play an important role. Restaurants should be glad of them – if they are doing a good job they‘ll get a good review, good PR, and increased custom. Only bad restaurants have anything to worry about reviews, and we shouldn’t let them be protected by libel laws preventing us telling other people that their mushrooms taste of rubber and their cola is reminiscent of regurgitated pig swill. As Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the Observer, writes: “Restaurant owners, if they’ve done a really lousy job, given the cost of eating out today, should not be protected from being told that.”

True, one case does not set a precedent for all to follow, but it sets a precedent for some to follow and more providers of bad services will follow suit trying to protect themselves from honest reviewers telling people that their service stinks to high heaven.

Reviews, as I’ve said, are a matter of opinion and this piece in particular was published in the features section of the paper and thus should have been clearly distinguishable from factual articles. In order for a reviewer to earn a reputation for being a good and reliable judge they must be truthful and honest. But, obviously any review will be more than just a statement of facts. They are fundamentally opinion pieces. I could go to Goodfellas and find the cola bubbly and refreshing, the atmosphere pleasant, and the staff doing everything they can for me besides full sex over a table. Anyone with more than half a brain understands that reviews are opinions based on experiences of one night in a restaurant. One defence to libel is to prove what you said was true, but in the case of an opinion piece you can’t always do that. How do you prove “the mushrooms taste rubbery.” Taste is subjective. All the sentence means is that to the reviewer the mushrooms tasted rubbery. But even if not essentially factual they shouldn’t be libellous.

If the appeal fails it will have a chilling effect not only on reviews but on the very concept of freedom of speech. Matthew Norman writes, “If this stands it could be the end of serious restaurant reviews…To say there’s a freedom of speech issue here is so blazingly obvious it almost goes without saying.” And that’s why the jury in the original trial are nothing other than idiots. Whoops! Was that comment libellous? Oh, that’s right, it can’t be libellous if it’s true, can it?

Since reviews are a matter of opinion, and understood as such by readers, it seems to me that you should be able to give quite a vitriolic review that even most people wouldn’t agree with and not run the risk of a law suit. Without protection in law we can’t be amused by comments such as “All things considered, quite the worst restaurant in London, maybe the world. San Lorenzo serves horrendous food, grudgingly, in a room that is a museum to Italian waiters’ taste circa 1976.” – AA Gill. Or: “The taste and texture of the pease pudding reminded me of occasions when I have accidentally inhaled while emptying the Dyson.” – Giles Coren. And: “I got the impression from the menu the food has a Vietnamese slant to it. [What] looked like a sea mine in miniature was the most disgusting thing I’ve put in my mouth since I ate earthworms at school.” We need more of this, not less!

During the appeal hearing Lord Lester commented that his wife frequently criticised meals served by her friends only to be told by a lawyer for Convery that in future she could well run the risk of libel or slander if she utters such comments in public. Which throws up all manner of ridiculousness that my mind literally boggles. In this world my mother’s advice to me as a child would become public policy: “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.” This is a world wherein should you need to send unsatisfactory food back to the kitchens you’d need to whisper really quietly to the waiter lest you risk a lawsuit in the event of other diners hearing your complaint.

In my ideal world people would be free to say and write what they feel and others would be free to disagree and argue. Wouldn’t that be a much better place? A place in which Mr Convery can’t hide his flat coke behind the flatheads of libel jurors. In which restaurants can compete openly and honestly with each other and be praised and criticised accordingly. In which we aren’t constantly being told what we can and can’t say all the live long day.

I’ll drink a bubbly icy coke to that. Better stay away from Goodfellas then.