Sunday, 4 February 2018

A question of ethics

Like many bloggers I write partially for my own amusement (keeps me out of mischief, sort of thing), but also because I like to think I have something relevant, and of interest, to say on my chosen topics of beer and travel.

I started the blog back in the autumn of 2008, so later this year the site will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. During the past nine and a half years, I have written just over 900 posts, so I should hit the 1,000 mark later this year; especially as since 2015 I have aimed to write a minimum of 10 posts a month.

This isn’t always easy, given that I am still gainfully employed running a busy quality control department in a company which manufactures medical devices. I also have other interests apart from beer, pubs and travel, and these include walking (sort of travel, I suppose), home-improvements plus the odd spot of gardening. Then of course there’s the family, and all the domestic stuff associated with family life.

As I intimated at the beginning, the blog is something of a labour of love and is not written for financial gain or for other inducements, such as goods in kind etc. I intend to cover the latter area in more depth shortly, but it is worth mentioning that several beer writers I know, who started out writing blogs have gone on to bigger and better things. In their various ways, all three have made successful careers within the beer industry, either directly or indirectly.

Good luck to them, and I wish them all well. Although I’m sure they wouldn't have minded me mentioning their names, I will refrain because I don't want to be accused of name dropping, but I have watched one person with particular interest and seen him start out from involvement with his university beer club, before blossoming out and writing his own blog.

He has now achieved a full time position working for the Morning Advertiser.  The reason for my interest is I happen to know his father, who is chairman of my local West Kent CAMRA Branch.

Now I will name drop briefly, as due to my Membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers,  I have had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with esteemed beer writer, Martyn Cornell, and I was also briefly introduced to the famed and prolific beer historian Ron Pattinson.

Right, back to the main point; goods in kind or for want of a better word, “freebies”. This word covers a multitude of different items from the odd bottle of beer sent for review, books or even in some cases an all-expenses paid trips abroad.

These items – gifts in kind are normally sent with the expectation that the receiver (beer writer or blogger), will review them in a favourable light; normally on their site or blog. The same will also apply in the instance of travel experiences.

Some writers will eschew such “freebies” altogether, whilst others will make a big point of declaring them. One well-known pair of beer bloggers even have a separate area on their site disclosing all the items they have received.  Whether or not you think this is necessary depends on your own individual conscience and how you feel about accepting such items.

Some might say that you are more likely to give a favourable review for something you received for free, than you would if you had to buy it. Personally I am quite happy to receive bottles of beer, beer-related books, or even the odd all-expenses paid trip , and whilst I fully accept I might be more likely to review such items favourabley , this is more because I tend to look for the positives in something, rather than singling out the negatives.

However, were I to receive something particularly bad, it is unlikely that I would write anything at all. Instead I would contact the supplier to check whether I’d been sent a faulty item. If it was a beer I didn’t like, then I would review it, as objectively as possible, but would say it was not to my taste.
Like many beer writers I have been invited to various product launches, the majority of which are normally held in London. It is easy for me to travel to the capital by train, providing the function takes place at a reasonable time, and does not interfere too much with my day job.

The main problem here is that, in my experience at least, PR companies tend to leave things to the last minute and then assume everyone else runs their life the same way. It is no use emailing me on the day of the launch asking if I want to attend an event the same evening. I prefer several days notice, a fact which probably hasn't gone unnoticed and may explain why these invites  have more or less dried up.

Right, I've laid my cards on the table and come clean that I'm quite happy to accept all the freebies sent to me. After all, you have to take these opportunities when they come along, as it's not often you get something for free.

Or do you? Surely everything comes at a price, and just recently we have seen some of the worst examples of human greed, particularity in public life. A few years ago we had the "cash for questions" saga in parliament, and more recently there were the well-publicised cases of MP's fiddling their expenses.

In industry, the supply of "gifts" from suppliers at Christmas time has substantially reduced. My company takes the eminently sensible, and fair practice of raffling these items (mainly chocolates or bottles of booze) off to the work-force (management are deliberately excluded).

As well as "gifts" being slow in coming, we have also noticed a particular reluctance on the  part of people such as auditors, in accepting even a sandwich, and some  even flinch at the offer of a a cup of tea! The auditors I am referring to here, are assessors from our "notified body", and they are on site to conduct "surveillance audits" to ensure our certification in respect of the medical devices we manufacture and sell, continues. Without this we would not be able to CE Mark our products and export them all over the world, so it is a pretty serious matter.

It used to be standard practice to take the auditor to the pub at lunchtime for "a pie and a pint". Nothing too excessive and nothing, apart from a possible fuzzy head, or relaxed frame of mind, which could sway the outcome of one of these audits in our favour. A former colleague, who worked for a while in pharmaceuticals in the Irish Republic, told me it used to be the case that come audit time, the Medicines Inspector expected, and invariably received, what was euphemistically described as a "good lunch".

Of course those days are now long gone and today, as I mentioned earlier, even the offer of a sandwich from the local shop is usually rejected, for fear of being seen as accepting "bribes". I ought to mention that the company has to pay for these audits, and the cost is not cheap. One year we clocked up a bill running into tens of thousands of pounds, so bodies such as BSI, LRQA, SGS and TUV might be thought as doing alright out of them. When the audit runs over several days, we even have to foot the auditor's hotel bill!

There is however, one exception, and that involves the man (or woman) from across the pond. Every six or seven years we receive notice that the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), wish to come and audit us. No-one and I repeat no-one, relishes these visits, as they are disruptive, extremely thorough, very probing and normally take place over a four day period,  but where the US Government is concerned, they will pick up the tab.

Prior to the proposed visit, the FDA will ask us to arrange hotel accommodation nearby and also transport to and from our premises. They forward details of what they expect to pay for a hotel room and meals, and we then book accordingly. The auditor then pays his or her bill and Uncle Sam covers the cost.

I have probably over-laboured this point about auditing, but I wanted to get across how the world has changed when it comes to ensuring complete objectivity and total impartiality when monitoring company Quality Management Systems, and in the wake of previous scandals (think silicone breast implants), this can only be a good thing.

So returning to the main theme about writers and bloggers accepting the occasional few bottles of beer, or an invite to a product launch. Is it ethical to accept such goodies, and if you do, should you declare them? My own view is there is a world of difference between accepting a few bottles or cans of beer and writing favorably about them, and turning a blind eye to defects in a company's quality system; especially as the latter could have serious public health or safety implications.

On the rare occasions I do receive products for review, I always declare this in my write-up, as by doing so I feel I can present a more balanced view to my readers. For me it is not so much a question of ethics as one of transparency, so whatever your viewpoint, I feel this can only be a good thing.


Professor Pie-Tin said...

Paul,I'm really sorry but this is just a stream-of-consciousness ramble.
There are some good points in your piece but they're lost in a sea of verbiage.
Writing well is like packing for your holidays.
Lay everything out on the bed or in this case page,discard half of it then question how much of the rest you really need,
Then pack it for on-board luggage rather than in the hold.
Seriously,write for a Usain Bolt sprint rather than a 10,000 metre race won by a Kenyan no-one can remember.
( I know you will take this in the spirit it is intended.)

Professor Pie-Tin said...

Upon re-reading my comment I feel I come across as rather harsh in my critique of your post and this was never my intention.
I do enjoy reading your musings but on this occasion I just felt you hadn't given it as much thought as you usually do.
I do hope you're not offended and if you are I apologise.

Matt said...

I don't see an ethical problem with bloggers receiving freebies from those in the industry (he said as a perennial non-recipient of any such) as long as you declare them upfront and write honestly about them.

There are also of course the benefits we receive from the trade as CAMRA members - vouchers and discounts in pubs, brewery tours with free samples, sponsorship of festivals and provision of prizes for events - which no doubt predispose us to them and their products much more subtly.

Tandleman said...

Could have been tighter I suppose, but ho hum.

As for freebies, I get very few these days and like you, an invitation to something in London at a day or two notice rarely works for me.

I'm not particularly anal about freebies. If it suits to give me something, fine. I don't need it, but I like to go to the odd do, mainly to keep up to date and to see others.

Paul Bailey said...

No offence taken Professor, although I seem to remember us having a similar conversation before.

You are correct about me not giving as much thought to this post as usual. This is because with hospital visiting there's not been much time for writing, so things have been rather hurried. Fingers crossed my good lady wife should be discharged soon, and then we can get back to normal.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
I'm glad this hasn't offended you as it was never my intention.
It was just that reading your post left me confused because it meandered a bit and also was illustrated by photos which didn't bear any resemblance to what you were writing about which left me scratching my head.
I know you are interested in doing more writing and take it very seriously which is why I offered the tips.
And of course you showed great patience in not telling me to bugger off.
In most writing less really is more.
Best wishes.
The Prof.

Paul Bailey said...

Prof, the majority of the photos were from the three European Beer Bloggers Conferences I attended, and whilst there was a fee payable by those who attended, they were all subsidised in one way or another; brewery tours, lunches, quite a lot of complementary beer - that sort of thing.

I think the 2014 bash in Dublin, which was the first such event I attended, attracted the most sponsorship, with the big boys, such as Molson Coors, Pilsner Urquell (via previous owners, SAB Miller) and Diageo all chipping in.

Looking back on my post it did meander somewhat but, like I said, there wasn't sufficient time to edit it, so I just banged it out in its "raw" state.

I understand what you mean about less being more when it comes to writing, and I do appreciate your tips - even if it doesn't always appear so at the time!

Cheers, Paul.

Paul Bailey said...

Matt and Tandleman, I think we are broadly in agreement with regard to freebies, and I do think your point TM about going to these beer launches is a valid one. It does us all good to get out and meet people, rather than spending every evening stuck in front of a computer.

Strangely enough, the supply of freebies seems to have dried up at the moment, which is probably just as well. With my wife convalescing, and an hour's round trip to visit her, the time available for me to write is somewhat limited at present. Fingers crossed she'll be home soon.