The Frankfurt Motor Show took place in September, and as usual a crowd of South African motoring “journalists” attended the event as guests of various car manufacturers. On their return, news about new models is splashed across the pages of our newspapers. Patrick Gearing gushes over a full page of Business Day about the pleasures of driving the new Porsche Boxster (September 29), and David Bullard titillates us in the Sunday Times of September 25 with his description of the array of exotic models on show.
Yet neither tells us who paid their bills. Whose guests were they? What motivates their reporting? Gearing doesn’t explain why he singled out the Porsche, and Bullard gives no clue as to why he chose to pluck the humble Renault Clio from among a host of dazzling vehicles for special mention.

These are just two examples; a cursory glance at the motoring pages of any newspaper will reveal many similar ones. Nowhere in journalism is the “honeyed onslaught of the marketers” sweeter, and nowhere is it less regulated.

Some questions to consider:

1. Is motoring journalism possible in South Africa without freebies?
2. Shouldn’t motoring journalists who accept freebies such as free trips or “long-term test vehicles” be required, as a matter of course, to tell their readers who their benefactors were, so that readers would be aware of any conflicts of interest?
3. Are motoring writers really independent journalists? Or are they part of the marketing machine of car manufacturers? What is the effect on perceptions of independence of the media?

– Robert Brand,
Rhodes University