Can I talk shop? I don’t very often, because motoring hackery is, after all, a pretty straightforward and lighthearted business,mostly developed around providing impartial, independent reviews of cars to people who like ’em.
That’s a pretty simple premise and one you wouldn’t think was so hard to get right, would you? And yet there are parts of it that feel rotten to the insides.
An email lands. It asks if I could spend an hour on the phone with a client – a car maker – talking about cars. Of course I can talk to them.
But: they want to pay me for my time. Ah. Now, they can’t do that, I say, because three weeks later I might be reviewing a car these people built, while their pounds sit in my bank account. That’s a non-starter.
They say they understand entirely but – and here’s the thing – it’s the first time someone has declined because of a conflict of interest. It’s only a phone interview, after all.
It is. But if you don’t draw the line there, where do you? I’ve been asked to do some benchmarking before, and even to drive a prototype, to provide feedback to aid development, with my valuable time recompensed. Sure, sometimes car makers want outside expert advice, but it’s hard to believe there’s no other agenda.
It’s not just individual hacks, either. The Geneva motor show wasn’t just a festival of fast new metal, but also of sharing concerned stories. Whether someone can get their car featured on a front cover for a certain amount of money. Whether some video content is sponsored, and by who. That one US car magazine is actually presenting a TV car advert. And how advertorial features – which would once have been flagged to the hilt as manufacturer-paid content – slip into print with barely a mention of it. Although none at this publisher, I’m happy to tell you.
But the hard truth facing all publishing is that, when you are giving away so much content for nothing, the money has to come from somewhere. Accompanying all of this is a legion of content bypassing the ‘old’ media and brought to the consumer direct. There are videos, billed as ‘reviews’ of the Peugeot 308, presented by a bloke flagged as a ‘motoring journalist’, produced and paid for by the car maker. You can watch a ‘review’ of the Range Rover Sport SVR presented by a bloke who consulted on its development.
Sometimes days like these, where some reviews are neither as impartial nor as independent as you’d hope, feel like dark ones. Not the end. But past the beginning of the end. Maybe the middle of the beginning of the end. And now more than ever, this business needs a strong media to push back against it.