I have previously used this column to express my astonishment at the extraordinary level of abuse aimed at Jamie Oliver over the failure of his UK restaurant business. The invective from the Twitterati (or in most cases that should be the Illiterati) was truly astonishing – and not just when he finally gave up the fight and called in administrators.
The reaction was just as vitriolic when he put the business through the CVA and even a year before that when he first admitted there were problems and closed half a dozen restaurants. On the latter occasion, I quoted several of the more measured responses to the suggestion by the Oliver camp that Brexit uncertainty had somehow been a factor. “So it’s not the fact the food and service is utterly shite,” opined one.
“I’d blame the over-priced pseudo-Italian slops they served up rather than Brexit,” said another.
Well, now I know how Jamie feels. And ironically it was an article about the chef’s financial results that caused an uproar against me that, if not quite as vituperative and bile-ridden as the comments aimed at Jamie, certainly qualify as rude and in many cases downright nasty.
Not to make excuses, but part of the problem with what appeared in The Times and its website was that the story I had written for the business section ended up in the home news pages, where they don’t like numbers and concepts such as ebitda and exceptionals rarely pass muster with the sub-editors.
The other issue was that the 500 words I’d written for business had to be crunched down into a 300-word space. So although the home news subs did a perfectly serviceable job, they ended up removing all the balance. My original intro had reported that while he’d collected up to £4.4m in dividends from his broadcasting, book publishing and licensing business, he’d pumped millions into trying to keep Jamie’s Italian afloat. To cap it all, the headline (which I did not write) read: “Jamie Oliver made millions as chain failed.” So poor old Jamie, having put a huge amount of his own wealth into trying to rescue Jamie’s Italian, gets carpeted by The Times for raking in millions while thousands lose their jobs.
In doing so, we seem to have deflected the anger so many amateur critics seemed to feel for Jamie onto ourselves. Here are one or two examples from the 315 comments posted under my story by readers of The Times. “For some strange reason Dominic Walsh fails to mention the £25m of his own money that Oliver injected in an attempt to save his restaurant business. For Mr Walsh to be unaware of that injection would be incompetence of the highest order. So, assuming not, do we conclude that Mr Walsh was trying to give a false impression by its omission? Very poor journalism.” Here’s another: “That’s a misleading, Daily Mail-style hatchet job that doesn’t befit The Times.” And this:
“I think Dominic Walsh should hang his head in shame, writing such poorly researched, badly written rubbish.” One final one:
“Astonishingly bad article that takes readers for fools - the accounting and issues are way more complex than the click bait headline suggests. Hope the Times reflects on this - subscribers deserve better than this poorly researched misleading nonsense.”
Ouch! (Being compared to the Daily Mail was particularly painful!).
Anyway, setting aside the sea-change to an outpouring of support for the previously vilified Jamie, I don’t suppose I can complain too much at the comments. Claiming that what appeared doesn’t bear much relation to what I originally wrote is pretty weak (even if true), and your average reader doesn’t realise the headline is written by somebody else. Mine is the name at the top of the copy and so I’m the one who has to take the criticism on the chin.
While we’re on the subject of posting comments on social media or other digital forums, I was intrigued at the way the Pizza Express story developed. What started out a few weeks ago in The Times, Debtwire and one or two other organs as the company starting to think about a debt restructuring, suddenly became a “Pizza Express on verge of going bust” type of story. One hospitality recruitment outfit even Tweeted former Pizza Express chairman Luke Johnson expressing his fears that the chain “could be the next high street name to disappear” and asking Luke whether he would step in and save it. In a typically pithy response, he replied: “It will not disappear, but I suspect the lenders may take a haircut.”
I guess Thomas Cook’s collapse under the weight of its unsustainable debt mountain was still fresh in many people’s minds, but whatever the reasons the line got picked up more and more widely and ended up trending on Twitter. The story eventually came full circle, as I was obliged to turn what I’d previously written in the City People column into a proper news story.
Proof that you can’t win in this digital world: having been right royally taken to the cleaners by Times readers over our rough handling of Jamie Oliver, a couple of days later I wrote up an altogether different type of piece: an interview with David Moore, the owner of Michelin-starred Pied à Terre in Fitzrovia by way of a scene-setter for that afternoon’s unveiling of the 2020 Michelin guide.
The interview was centred on his views of Michelin based on holding one or two stars for 28 years in a row (now 29) and was intended as a change of pace amid the harder-hitting business news stories. For a bit of a laugh we even listed what I had chosen for my lunch while interviewing David.
Before long, the comments started: “Journalist gets nice lunch in exchange for PR article. In The Times? Oh dear.” Another reader dismissed my carefully crafted 850 words as “a puff piece”. Thanks Sally Goss, whoever you are! I look forward to your next expert comment on my work.
Vituperative, bile-ridden, rude and downright nasty
I have previously used this column to express my astonishment at the extraordinary level of abuse aimed at Jamie Oliver over the failure of his UK restaurant business. The invective from the Twitterati (or in most cases that should be the Illiterati) was truly astonishing – and not just when he finally gave up the fight and called in administrators. The reaction was just as vitriolic when he put the business through the CVA and even a year before that when he first admitted there were problems and closed half a dozen restaurants.