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From the Editor

26th March 2002

by Julian Edgar

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The Swindling of Public Opinion

When you consider it, the relationship between journalists performing new car tests and the car companies that lend out those cars is a very odd one.

Typically, the media outlet is given a car for a week, completely free of charge. Some road testers then use exactly a single tank of fuel in that week, returning the car empty... and so get free fuel thrown in. It's not hard to organise a procession of test cars, the next being picked up when the last was returned... resulting in a constant stream of free, maintained, insured, brand new, fuelled-up cars to drive.

In fact, some automotive journalists don't even own private cars - why bother when car manufacturers are supplying them non-stop and free?

The cynical could regard this system as one completely at odds with journalistic ethics regarding the acceptance of bribes. After all, if the hire of a car costs, say, a conservative $100 a day, some journalists are receiving from car manufacturers and/or importers a benefit equivalent to over $35,000 a year. Some media organizations are probably receiving half a million dollars a year in freely-provided cars.

Insofar that many cars currently cannot be obtained close to their release date in any other way, and that there is a whole list of cars not available for hire or otherwise able to be procured for short periods, I don't have a problem with the current system.

Except that one vital tenet must be observed.

Morally and ethically, making available to motoring journalists no-cost test cars can only be aboveboard if the journalist is free to write whatever they wish about that car or the company that manufactures that car. That is, once any pressure is brought to bear by a car company to influence the resulting story, or the provision of a car is premised on previously published viewpoints regarding that company, the system fails completely.

One example of such an insidious influence is the belief that should the viewpoint of the journalist not match the viewpoint of the car company, the supply of cars will simply stop.

But why is that inappropriate? As in fact I was told by a car company representative just today, "We place our test cars where they will do us the most good."

Doesn't that seem fair and reasonable? After all, the car company is paying for the cars - not the media outlet! And the PR division of each car company is charged with generating as much positive publicity about that company's cars as possible - and with that policy in place, that's just what they are trying to do.

But the very important corollary of that company perspective is: "We place our cars where we are confident that they will not be harshly criticised. We lend cars only to journalists who we believe are likely to write positive reviews. We place our cars with media companies that do not have a history of criticising our company."

And the outcomes of that approach have significant implications for every car buyer.

In fact, from the perspective of the public good, a car company adopting this selective policy is perpetrating a gross abuse of power.

Readers of road tests simply do not know that access to certain manufacturers' vehicles is predicated on how closely that journalist or media outlet has furthered the PR department's aims. (Bizarrely, all press cars are organised through the public relations department of each car company - it is implicit in this arrangement that cars are lent to the media in order that the company receive positive publicity..... not that the cars be tested.)

Interested in buying a car? Been looking up its tests? All of them to a greater or lesser degree positive? Well, perhaps the car is in fact a good one.

Or perhaps those journalists that the car manufacturer expected to go through the car with a finetooth comb, or test the handling and suspension on rough roads as well as smooth roads, or had the technical knowledge to comment on the age or design of the mechanicals - well, maybe the company made sure that none of those journalists had access to a press car.

The result - a range of positive tests produced by an acquiescing media, all following the party line and staying on the gravy train of free cars. (And don't even get me started on advertising dollars!)

It is an absolute breach of all that journalism stands for when an editor of a magazine is required to justify to a car company that a certain proportion of previously run stories about that company's products has been positive, before access to a press car is granted.

It also astonishingly indicative of the cosy relationship that nearly all the motoring media in Australia has with car manufacturers and importers that a company spokesperson of a large car company can baldly state: "We didn't like what you wrote about us and so you won't get any press cars." Why? Because for other media, the (unspoken) inverse must therefore hold, "We like what you wrote about us and so you will get (free) press cars...."

The linking of positive publicity for a car company with the provision or otherwise of press cars makes a mockery of the concept of the freedom of the press, and is to state in clarion terms the cosy relationship that car manufacturers normally enjoy with the motoring media.

In fact, I can go much further than that. By lending cars only to those journalists who implicitly agree to not criticise too harshly the company or its products, car companies are involved in the systematic and wholesale bribing of the media in order that their vehicles receive largely positive coverage. It is a tragedy that the vast majority of motoring journalists see nothing wrong with this bastardisation of their profession, and in fact think it fair and proper that, as one told me, "we make sure that we don't concentrate on the negatives" when testing a car.

The current system is one fundamentally corrupt and misleading of the public. The acceptance of free press cars without divulging the status of that transaction in the resulting story is in direct or partial breach of at least three of the Australian Journalists' Code of Ethics (numbers 1, 4 and 5 - see breakout below), while any comprehensive list of big business ethics includes one to the effect that the provision of hidden goods or services in return for favour is completely inappropriate.

Henceforth all AutoSpeed car reviews will include a footnote stating the financial implications of how the car was obtained. After all, when reading the review, wouldn't you like to know whether it was a freebie or if we outlaid real dollars to hire it?

Such an approach, where, in the words of the Australian Journalists Code of Ethics, there should be disclosure of "conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism" is commonplace in other areas of the media. A note stating that the journalist, for example, flew to Singapore "as a guest of Singapore Airlines" is routinely included in articles where the airline has paid for the journalist's flight. Why? Because the reader can then take this into account when assessing the credibility of the story. But you won't have seen such statements in the motoring media...

Nearly all parties are happy with the current arrangement. Journalists and automotive media get a stream of free press cars. (Car magazines would be up for huge costs if in fact had to pay for the cars that they are driving.) Car companies are happy footing the bill for massive press car fleets because they can be certain that the media coverage of them will be largely positive.

And the public? In innocent bliss they assume that they are getting fair and impartial reviews of new cars, reviews where the journalist is able to express an opinion free of any commercial constraints.

But that is simply not the case.

There are only two ways around the moral bankruptcy surrounding the current provision of cars to motoring journalists: either all media organizations pay a hire rate to new car companies for the cars that they review (this then places that relationship on a commercial footing and not at the level of a bribe), or car companies make available press cars solely on the basis of the demographics and readership numbers attracted by that media outlet.

The contracting of independent companies to organise the distribution of press cars would make this process transparent.

The current situation where cars are supplied by some car company PR departments only to those complicit media who are prepared to write generally favourably about that company and its products is corrupt, deceptive, and morally unacceptable.

Australian Journalists

  1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.
  1. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual disability.
  1. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source's motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
  1. Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.
  1. Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.
  1. Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.
  1. Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.
  1. Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person's vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.
  1. Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.
  1. Do not plagiarise.
  1. Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.
  1. Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

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