“We’ve been waiting for you for half a fucking hour you daft bastard! I’ll miss my fucking flight because of you!”
Thus screamed the motoring correspondent of a national newspaper down the aisle of a coach on one of my first foreign trips as an automotive journalist. It isn’t quite being punched in the face following a row over a steak dinner, but it’s perhaps the most enlightening personal experience I can relate in trying to convey how monumentally brattish motoring journalists are.
To put this in context, my mobile phone had somehow defaulted back to British time and woken me an hour later that I’d expected, meaning I’d climbed onto the coach to the airport 15 minutes later than scheduled. With the built-in safety valve that all press offices factor in to such jaunts, it meant that we only spent three hours sitting in an airport departure lounge rather than three and and a half. Nevertheless I was virtually ostracised from the remainder of the group that day, deemed persona non grata by the angry – and influential – hack.
The incident is indicative of an attitude common in the profession, particularly among older and more established motoring journalists. They are some of the most spoiled people in the country who aren’t famous – being whisked around the world on a succession of what are essentially action-packed, high-luxury, all-inclusive foreign holidays and mollycoddled by a team of PR professionals on every step of the way.
I have driven on frozen lakes, screamed around some of the most famous tracks in the world and hooned in some of the best, fastest and most expensive cars in existence. I’ve driven over a police car in a monster truck, slept in an igloo, dined with footballing legends and gone husky-sledding at the expense of various car manufacturers. I crashed a car once, through no fault of my own, and was driven back to the country pub where the launch was talking place. The PR team checked I was alright, laughed it off and sent me straight back out in another. While it generally requires a vast pool of knowledge, talent and perseverance to get there, frankly being a motoring journalist is a blast. We have what most people consider to be one of the best jobs that exist this side of royalty or celebrity.
In between these trips, for which many are well paid by a variety of freelance or full-time outlets, there’s likely to be a succession of press cars, delivered to our doors at times that suit with a full tank of fuel. Many motoring journalists do not own cars: they don’t need to, nor do they buy petrol. I consider this an enormous treat, as do many colleagues and friends in the industry, albeit one that’s central to a strand of my career; others consider it a given and don’t produce any work off the back of it. They are provided with cars and invites simply because they’re important enough – on whatever metric the car manufacturer has decided. Frequently this means because the PR and the journalist are mates.
A famous example of this sense of you-couldn’t-make-it-up entitlement is an article that was passed around the inboxes a few years ago where a journalist for a scarcely-relevant freesheet berated a popular British manufacturer for denying his request for a press car, raging about the injustice this amounted to, especially in light of the coverage he had provided the previous year when he’d taken the car to Monaco and been complimented by George Clooney.
The best sources for this kind of gossip in the car industry are the drivers and auxiliary staff who drive, clean and maintain the cars. Treat them as human beings, rather than minions, and you can learn a great deal from them. As people who drive a different car every day they’re great sources of auto knowledge. And as they’re delivering cars to VIPs on a daily basis they know all the naughty secrets of the industry: who’s nice and who’s not; what this person said to that person and who crashed what.
I’ve never met Jeremy Clarkson, though I’ve met many who have. Opinion of the Top Gear host seems to coalesce around the fact that he is funny, awkward and incredibly rude (one fellow hack told me that’s he’s also a massive bird-watcher, which I didn’t see coming). Were you to judge the behaviour of motoring journos on the lower rungs of the industry in relation to their fame, however, you would assume that Clarkson is a terrible ball of seething hatred, merrily throwing kittens into combine harvesters and screaming torque-related obscenities into the faces of nuns. Being used to getting their way, regardless of how inconsiderate, insensitive or awkward their demands are, has made monsters of many a journalist — it’s behaviour totally at odds with how important, in relative terms speaking, they really are.
I have heard tell of the car journalist who hires out press cars to friends and family, the sports personality who merrily writes off cars like they’re going out of fashion, the hacks who won’t give a hapless driver a lift to the station, forcing them to slog it to the nearest rural bus-stop or wait outside for a taxi. Household name or no, what the badly-behaved motoring journos have in common is that they exist in a professional bubble where they are indulged, accommodated and fawned over in just about every aspect of their lives.
Press officers are there to help, assist, flatter, amuse and entertain you and I don’t doubt it takes rare skill, patience, knowledge, humour and diplomacy to deal with the demands of the press pack. If you don’t like your dinner, complain to a PR; if you want to drive a different car to everyone else at a different time of the day, tell a PR; if you want some money to buy a souvenir for your kids, ask a PR; if you want to have a go on a 30-tonne snow-blower 6,000 feet up the Alps, get a PR to arrange it for you. With nearly ten years behind me as an automotive journalist even I have to remind myself that I’m in a lucky position. Being a motoring journalist is the nearest you can get to having your own personal factotum; a demigod in a Ford Mondeo.
As someone who is both famous and important it should come as no surprise that Jeremy Clarkson is rude to people he considers underlings. Even many rungs down the ladder from Top Gear, being a car scribe is probably the closest anyone can become to being famous and important while being neither.
Originally published on Medium.com