By Abigail Wincott, University of Brighton
My media colleague Gilly Smith and Jo Ralling from the Jamie Oliver Foundation talked about TV chefs, the changes they might effect in wider food culture and the materials and structures which accompany those changes. For example, Gilly mentioned new restaurants and a foodie tourist trade in Hungary, in part the product of a Hungarian version of Jamie Oliver. Jo talked up the successes of Jamie’s food campaigns in the UK, including the sugar tax and changes to school dinners.
A couple of people in the room took issue with their account, accusing Jamie-style cheftivism of unforgivable smugness and asking why Oliver doesn’t raise the issue of food poverty more often.
Others worried that these chefs’ campaigns tend to shame people, that lifestyle TV formats of problem-expert advice-redemption are inherently judgemental, assume lack of information is the reason for poor eating and don’t recognise the varied and individual circumstances people eat and cook in. The same might be said however for public health campaigning the world over…
To her credit Jo acknowledged she and the team at the JO Foundation were aware of these issues, discussed them and tried to produce programmes which took account of them. At all costs they wanted to avoid shaming she said.
Gilly argued people who make sweeping statements about foodie campaign TV tend not to have watched the half hour programmes, but only read the soundbites in news reports. These leave less room for nuance she argued.
This discussion about lifestyle TV activism is a really important one and we didn’t even scrape the surface on the day. It seems to me the question of form or format is key – Jo and Jamie and other media producers are bound by generic conventions like the quest or the transformation. Commissioners need to show they are moving with ‘the next big thing’ and won’t always stick around to follow things up (a point Gilly made). Sound bites may get read more, but long form journalism and longer programmes do have the potential to be both entertaining and a bit judgemental but also so much more.
I think we should all be mindful that food debates of all kinds are mediated, and all are affected by the medium. Academic journal articles, conferences presentations and Q&As are no exception. Our discussion was at least as inadequate on the day as any news report – but it was, I hope, an important opener to a much longer conversation.