For as long as I can remember – indeed, for as long as anyone can remember – the biking public have been wary of the media’s relationship with manufacturers / importers. Which is hardly news: querying press credibility is as old as journalism itself – everyone knows you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers. So why bother stating the obvious?
Over the last year or so, we’ve noticed a significant increase in protestations about coverage. Whilst it is true that internet forums are not necessarily reliable indicators of anything, it would be foolish to totally discount them as barometers of opinion – especially when a viewpoint is expressed as consistently as has been the case with this subject.
We’ve also identified examples of reporting which might reasonably give rise to accusations of bias: the recent Panigale coverage being one example. (The same publication – MCN in the UK – came in for criticism in 2010, when on occasion the paper could have been mistaken for a wholly owned subsidiary of Triumph Motorcycles – even Triumph fans were taken aback by the stream of approbation.) The point is this: even if these interpretations and others like them are entirely subjective, the very fact that they are being articulated on a regular basis should be a concern, because lost credibility means lost readers.
Raising the issue and treating it seriously is more useful to all concerned than simply throwing one’s hands in the air and protesting that ’twas ever thus, a reaction we encountered from the media while researching this piece. That response wont get anyone anywhere, and in an environment where hard copy publications are struggling to maintain sales, combating negative perceptions may not be such a bad idea. If articulating the problem really is stating the obvious, why not try and address it instead of burying heads in the sand?
While most journalists would accept that a degree of cynicism is an understandable, even desirable trait in an informed readership, they naturally resent the implication that they are party to a culture of deceit – either deliberately so, or merely by association. They aren’t particularly keen on talking about the issue and have little reason to do so, since no evidence of specific malpractice by a correspondent in the UK bike world has ever come to light. But when we move away from individuals and look in more general terms at the way product is sometimes covered, there is more of a case to answer, if only because lazy reporting – in the form of uncritical editorial endorsement – can and does give the impression of bias. So why bother hyping – or bigging up – something to an extent where suspicions are going to be raised?
At which point, inevitably, the old spectre of advertising revenue pops up like a pantomime villain. In an attempt to get an informed perspective on the whole issue, BG spoke to Kevin Ash and Rupert Paul. Between them these two have a almost a half century of reporting experience and have covered pretty much everything to do with two wheeled, motorised transport. If you read bike journalism from around the world, you will know that by comparison, the UK variety is robust, informative and articulate – and often amusing. That reputation is partly down to journalists like those two. This is what they had to say.
RP – People have always questioned what they read in the papers. Credibility was an issue raised in focus groups back in the mid 90s, when I was working for BIKE. Things get written which may be debatable or inaccurate, but that isn’t evidence of corruption. In nearly 30 years I have never been put under pressure to call a test in a particular way.
I recently had a particular bike on test for a year, about which I expressed ongoing reservations in print. During that time no one suggested I tone down my criticism. Things do get subbed, but my impressions were fairly represented.
Advertising getting withdrawn is a matter of fact. It happens. The advertiser is entitled to walk away if he’s unhappy with something that has been written, and has done so many times. Clearly there are ramifications but advertisers tend to return of their own accord, as they have a job to do.
KA – I can say absolutely certainly that even when I was the main road tester for MCN, probably the most influential position in the UK bike press for affecting bike sales (Kawasaki once told me the first review in MCN almost always determines the entire sales life of a new model), I was never put under any pressure or even had any hint about how a test should be written. The bottom line always was, if the editorial loses its credibility, the losses would be far greater than anything that might be gained by pandering to an advertiser.
Advertisers pulling the plug may well be an attempt to exert influence, but there is clearly an element of frustration involved in giving a large amount of money to a publication which is being negative about one of its products.
What struck me as remarkable about these two statements was their similarity – and before anyone starts questioning the credibility of this piece (which would be an interesting irony) – neither journalist was aware that I had spoken to the other until I told them, after or during the interview. From their accounts, and given their experience, it seems clear that corporate hospitality should not be confused with deliberately seeking to manipulate the outcome of a test. It is the job of manufacturer’s representatives to try and influence outcome, but that is not the same thing as corrupt practice.
on the perception
Then again, complaints one hears are seldom aimed at individual journalists. Most of the suspicion has centred on protecting advertising revenue, but Kevin’s point about credibility seems germane: risk that, and you stand to loose everything. He did point out that things probably hadn’t always been perfect, and that he couldn’t speak for other territories, but on the whole it is obvious to us that the biggest reward comes from playing with a straight bat – and more importantly, being seen to do so. That means stamping down hard when suspicions might be aroused.
The old saying about glass houses also applies – small, independent websites and blogs (like this one) are far more vulnerable to blandishments, because for us industry support is that much harder to come by: simply securing short term press bikes for testing can be difficult, and the consequence of negative reviewing could make life very tricky indeed. What is water off a duck’s back for the big boys could easily drown us, which is why we publish details of all supporters and contributions, irrespective of how minor they may appear to be. It is harder for manufacturers to take umbrage if they know that the publication plays with a straight bat. Absolute transparency is mandatory, not least because it is the only way to combat the negative perception that the constituency so clearly harbours about the media in general, from the top down.
We don’t believe that individual journos are de facto bent, and like Kevin Ash we think that maintaining advertising revenue by means of deliberate editorial bias would be profoundly unwise. However, that there has been something of a back scratching culture at work in media / industry relations can not seriously be doubted: it would be extremely hard to produce a weekly like MCN without close co-operation with the industry. The problem occurs when the results of that relationship transgress editorially: the perception of hype undermines integrity. A refusal to generate or get sucked in to frantic promoting would increase credibility, and right now the press need that more than anything. Generally speaking, listening to the messenger is a better bet than shooting him. Even if it’s less entertaining…