Why critics like Jay Rayner have a role in battling self-censorship
Our CEO ponders the challenges of being a reviewer after reading the latest column from the Observer's restaurant writer
12 Apr 24

Food critic Jay Rayner was in two minds about reviewing the Jewish restaurant Freddie's Deli (whose bagels are shown above) given the current political turmoil

Rambunctious, witty and passionate. You are lucky to get one of these qualities in a critic. It elevates their writing away from potentially mean to engaging and joy. Yes, the play may have been a bit drab or the book eighteen chapters too long, but at least the critic was able to puncture the pomposity and draw some positives from the experience. And in my recent experience of the theatre – critics definitely have a role…

The world of food is no different from stage and screen. In these trying times we all need a good laugh served with a side-order of passion. Food critics open the door to the aspirational, allow us to get lost in their experiences of foods that we might never eat, and on occasion help us find that hidden gem we venture to for a family get together or, even better, the dive bar that serves the perfect deep fried food to accompany a few pints of your favourite.

Don’t worry – this isn’t me using my blog to pitch for a new gig as a critic! Although…

No, the reason why I’m discussing this is because of a review of Freddie’s Deli in London I read this week by Jay Rayner. I love Jay’s writing – the sass, the detail and the evident joy he shares with the reader from exploring the good, the bad and the ugly of British cuisine.  As you’d expect from Jay, this critical assessment is everything you’d want and more.

But as you get towards the end he exposes what is truth for many at the moment and the real impact of self-censorship.

“When I first came across Freddie’s I was excited. For all my lack of faith or observance these dishes, kept alive by a vestigial memory of the shtetl, root me. Then I hesitated. Could I really write about a Jewish restaurant given the current political turmoil? Would I get abuse for doing so? Surely better to keep shtum. At which point I knew I had no choice: I had to write about it. The horrendous campaign of the government and armed forces of Israel in Gaza cannot be allowed to make being Jewish a source of shame.”

Thankfully, Jay drove these thoughts away and put pen to paper. His review is all the better for sharing these considerations which are all too real for many in the UK at the moment. What can you say, what can you write and what will be the consequences, on social media, or in real life as debates and issues lead to an increasingly toxic public space.

In an era where every word risks being misconstrued or politicised, even the most seasoned commentators and critics may find themselves hesitating before committing pen to paper or voice to screen. What was once a realm of boisterous voices and unwavering judgments now resonates with a quieter, more cautious tone. The fear of backlash, whether from sponsors, readers, or the broader socio-political landscape, has cast a shadow of self-doubt over even the most confident pens, ushering in an epoch where the act of expressing a view is accompanied by a whisper of uncertainty.

In previous blogs, I have noted how the modern world is a dichotomy: we are closer together yet more divided. Another consequence of this is we are living in a global community where the sins of others are imposed on individuals who have no connection to them whatsoever. This matters. It matters especially for freedom of expression.

We can and must do better. There are glimmers of hope in the darkness and we must do what we can to highlight them. Index on Censorship was set up to give a voice to the voiceless. Jay Rayner’s recent critique delivers some home truths about self-censorship and I for one am grateful that he pushed through that niggling doubt to share his important thoughts and I can’t wait to visit Freddie’s Deli.