The life of a journalist on the motoring beat is replete with foreign trips, cash and expensive gifts, all in exchange of a slippery pen
garnering sensational editorial content towards improving the morning-after "thud" factor -- or the collective sound a bunch of press-clippings gummed to letterheads make -- is one of the prime functions that present-day "public relations" companies indulge them in. This is because accepted wisdom is that a few column centimetres in the English media is supposed to be worth a few paid full-page ads in terms of gathering reader credibility for your product or service. Towards that goal, the purveyors of instant information will do anything.
The technical term by which it is better known in the public relation circle, though with dubious implications, is "managing the environment". Within the new genre of motoring journalism in India this has translated itself, of late, into fully-paid trips to exotic destinations. Over July-August-September 1999, there were trips to South Korea and Europe (Hyundai); South Korea (Daewoo); Europe (Fiat); Chennai and Europe (Ford); Europe (General Motors); the us (Delphi); Japan (Toyota); Pune (Tata); the us (Visteon) and Scandinavia (Volvo). I may have missed a few. The only automobile companies, to my knowledge, which do not take journalists on junkets are Maruti and Eicher.
My experiences on one such junket way back in 1997 was all it took to convince me that these were -- very simply put -- nothing more than bribes. I returned 8 kilos heavier and none the wiser because most of the new technology products were out of bounds to us. Ever since, I have been saying "No thank you" at the rate of almost twice a month. The chorus has become even louder since the diesel debate took off. (I hope I shall be spared the attention after this article!) The excuse given is that these are "educative" opportunities. Well, if so, better education on motoring without bias is available free on the Internet. And if you want to really see efficiently-run factories, go no further than the Maruti Udyog Limited at Gurgaon.
Another excuse put forward is that it is the "norm" abroad. Well, it may be, but even that is debatable as the better publications always pay their own way. But the Indian fascination with a phoren trip makes all the difference. We are not even talking about the envelopes with cash in them or the free shopping that is taken for granted.
The fact remains that if some of my fraternity could put in even a fraction of the mileage they do in the air, usually business class, to driving on the road, they wouldn't write glowing reviews on everything thrown their way. The "luxury" cars do not even make for 6-7 per cent of the market but they seem to get reportage by the yard. Articles supporting diesel engine technology appear repeatedly, as though well co-ordinated by some divine power.
Today, as a motoring journalist, I find it extremely difficult to remain honest. The manufacturers are, after all, the source of my livelihood. If I do not accept their hospitality, I am called "technically unsound" or worse a "loose cannon". I have returned or refused cash, expensive suit pieces and other gifts. And, yes, there are also offers towards picking up the cost of educating my child abroad. Matters have come to such a head that invitations to junkets are withdrawn if I inform the manufacturer that I, or the media I work for, shall pay my fare. It is assumed here that if I refuse hospitality I am hostile to their cause!
So what does all this lead to? An extremely pliable media, obviously. The average cost of a junket to Europe is more than Rs 4 lakh. Frankly, won't I be obliged having accepted so much?
Criticism comes easily to us motoring journalists and we are quick to write about corruption, etc. But this latest trend of pro-diesel articles following appeasements by the automobile manufacturers can only be called motivated. This is not honest dissemination of information anymore. This is very simply put an effort to sway the minds of those who read, including the judiciary and the lay reader. It is, in effect, questioning not just the logic behind the current diesel debate but actually questioning the motive behind such debate.
And if that is not a contempt of court, then I do not know what is.
The author is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, who also edits http://cybersteering.com, an independent motoring magazine which does not accept ads from auto manufacturers
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