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Beware the freebie.

Published on: June 6, 2015
Published on: June 6, 2015

Beware the freebie.

*steps up on soap-box*

The recent brouhaha, fracas, dust-up (take your pick) involving Jeremy Clarkson got me thinking. Not about the future of Top Gear or the BBC's code of internal conduct (couldn't care less about either to be perfectly honest), but about the future of professional motoring criticism.

You see, whether you think of Clarkson as devil or angel, as right or wrong, what cannot be denied is that he is independent. He always was. I'm old enough to remember Clarkson Mk1 - all leather jacket and bubble-perm, ranting from the truncated format of Old Top Gear or the inside back page of the late, lamented Performance Car magazine. Clarky was never one to hold back an opinion, and in the classic sense of defending to my death his right to say it, I always admired him at least for that.

But he's a rarity, and whether this is the end for him, or whether Sky pitches up with a bottomless paycheque, he will inevitably eventually retire and then his ilk will become even rarer. And that will be a shame. Oh, sure, the casual racism and intolerance of all things eco-friendly may well meet a welcome demise, but Clarkson's readiness to be forthright and unstinting in his opinions will be sadly missed. Worse still, they may eventually become all but extinct.

You see, as with all forms of journalism, motoring journalism is under threat. The increasing power of the internet has apparently placed an insurmountable burden on the shoulders of newspaper and magazine proprietors. Titles are being shuttered, staff being laid off. It is the Armageddon of the written word.

Which leads to something of an anomaly. You see, regular, 'proper' journalism is a hard slog - a never-ending round of fact checking, spell-checking and bank-account-checking. No sooner have you scored a winner with one successful story than you're back to square one again and the screen in front of you is blank and your phone calls aren't being answered. It takes a special kind of dogged, hard-bitten, mildly twisted bastard or bastardess to put up with the lifestyle.

Motoring journalism is a little different and is perceived as glamorous. Partially, that is down to the efforts of Clarkson and Top Gear but the fact is that we do essentially get paid to play with Matchbox and Corgi toys on a grand scale. Which led legendary American journalist and writer PJ O'Rourke to say that "motoring journalism is the job you'd pay to be allowed to do if you hadn't figured out a way to get paid for doing it." He's right - we love our jobs and rightly so and while the toys (ahem, cars) are nice, the real joy is actually in the writing. Or at least it should be and if it isn't, you should consider another career.

The problem is people don't. There are those who will do the work for free, simply because it grants them access to the toys and the occasional nice lunch out; those who will curry favour with the carmakers and suppliers, either just for access to the machines or for the advertising budgets that accompany them. Those who figure that saying nice things and not rocking the boat are the best ways to ensure that they stay, as it were, close to the flame. These people are not motoring journalists - they are at best hobbyists, and usually ones with another source of income who are merely dabbling in motoring writing as an interest or a way of riding the freebie gravy train.

These people are dangerous. Why? Because a car is the second most expensive thing you will ever buy, after your house. It's estimated that on average, over a lifetime of buying and trading in cars, you will spend at least €70,000 on your wheels. That's a huge chunk of change and the problem with the hobbyists is that they will tell you everything is nice. Their only critical faculty when presented with a new car is to say that they like it.

Us? Well, far be it from me to blow the trumpet but I take great pride in the knowledge that we regularly annoy and enrage car companies and their PR managers. We don't toe the party marketing line and never will. If a car's not right, if it's under-performing, if it's lacking something relative to the competition, we will say so. We're not here to plug or to toady - we're here as professional critics. If you don't believe us, I can tell you many a tale of ear-stinging phone calls from car company PRs and CEOs following a less-than-glowing review.

Why is this important to you? Because that means you can count on us, and some others out there, to be impartial, objective and ultimately helpful. Go and look on the website at the Ask Us Anything section. We try to steer you, individually if needs be, towards the car that is right for you. The car that fits your needs, your life and your budget. Aren't most cars good these days? Yes, that much is true but, Lenin-like, some are equally more good than others.

The good news is that you, the great car buying public, do listen to us. What we hear more than ever from car makers and sellers is that you are doing your research, usually online, and taking the information we present and making use of it. You're rocking up at car dealerships with your mind set, your numbers crunched and your choices made. Bravo. That's the right way to do it.

So let me add in a little please and thank you. Thank you for doing so. And please keep coming back and do it again. If you read our efforts, pay attention to them and make use of them then that makes us an indispensable part of the buying process, and that means that we can earn enough of a crust to keep going at this, and help you and more like you.

The alternative? To let the hobbyists and the freebie merchants hold sway and that is the way to dusty death. At that point, the marketing and PR types have won, because the tame writers, the ones who have been housebroken by the carmakers, will just parrot the party line and suddenly every car is class-leading, every car is a recommendation.

Jeremy Clarkson will one day be forgotten, but I will hold dear a small memory of him. Was his behaviour in the incident in the hotel utterly repugnant and unacceptable? Yes it was, as was his sexism, his Conservative-with-a-capital-C-ism and his casual racism. But forget that for a moment. Celebrate instead the fact that he had an opinion, and honestly gave it. Whatever future there is in journalism, whatever ownership model, whatever revenue stream, that is the only thing of any value.

*descends from soap-box*