As a motoring journalist I took the freebies but don’t blame me for VW

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The Independent Online

Tuscany. The Western Cape, South Africa. Berlin. Sardinia. Morocco. The Black Sea coast of Turkey. Arizona. Crete. New York. Geneva. Paris. Milan. Barcelona. Iceland ….

Quite an itinerary, eh? In fact it represents just a small selection of the lovely spots I’ve been taken to by the world’s car makers – all for free, often on a private jet, and always put up in excellent hotels with superb hospitality. Cocktails with a suspension of gold flakes were a highlight of one trip organised by Saab; and I believe Bentley once dished out Breitling watches to the journalists (that was unusual).  It’s heady stuff. The average young motoring journalist employed on a mag, miserably paid and living in a bedsit in Peterborough, say, can live like a billionaire for a couple of days, including using the gold-plated loos on the Chelsea private jet, as leased for one trip to Spain as I recall.  

So thank you, Citroën, Kia, Fiat, Peugeot, Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, General Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and many others, including, topically, Volkswagen Group. 

‘A young motoring journalist in a bedsit can live like a billionaire for a day or two’


Which brings me to this: why, I am asked, didn’t the motoring journalists uncover the VW emissions scandal? Too lazy – or corrupt? No. The truth is that motoring writers have been banging on about the glaring differences between real-world fuel consumption and the “official” test figures for years, me included. (Fuel consumption being the other side of the emissions story). Though the VW diesel engine cheat was a particular one, a general suspicion about such official test numbers has been written up and published in the car magazines and supplements for as long as I can recall. 

Ten years ago, I wrote about a long-term test Toyota Prius hybrid that didn’t always live up to its claims of ultra-low petrol consumption (and ultra-low exhaust emissions). No one was bribed into silence; far from it. The problem was that no one much cared. Mainstream media didn’t follow it up much, and the public just kept buying VW Golfs as their default choice. As, I suspect, they will continue to do. 

But what about that lavish entertainment and occasional gift (the “blag”, as we hacks termed them) designed to blunt critical faculties?  Maybe, 40 years ago, when cars were less reliable and capable than now. A Lada launch in Ireland, where no cars actually made it, was one example where such a strategy might have been appropriate.  

Today, though, there are few really bad cars, and so the motor giants need not worry about negative copy. If launches are an attempt to “buy” journalists they are a waste of money; if they are an opportunity to meet bosses and engineers in convivial surroundings and to showcase a car’s performance on motorways, twisty mountain roads, congested towns, off-road, on race track – then that is legitimate. So, please, keep the invites coming.