Bribery and Confusion

You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God! the British journalist
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) was probably right and now the Guild of Motoring Writers is solemnly providing advice to members on how to avoid falling foul of the Bribery Act. Nothing’s new. I was briefly on the Guild Committee about 30 years ago, when motoring journalists came under suspicion.
(top) BMW Z4M Coupe
One Christmas, The Guardian’s Ian Breach published a list of the gifts that came the way of national newspaper motoring correspondents. The implication was clear: “Here I am displaying all the bribes, which I am returning, showing I am above that sort of thing.” He was a competent motoring correspondent, a bit self-serving perhaps, but he raised the hackles of contemporaries. Quite senior members of the Guild were incensed. One responded with a memorable: “Once more into your friends, dear Breach.”

Dear Breach did, alas, have a point. The relationship between the industry and the press had become cosy – a bit like that between politicians, some press barons, and the Metropolitan police into which Lord Leveson is trying to shine some light. And the notion that lavish car launches could be classed as bribery has resurfaced. In the eyes of the law, it seems, a bribe is giving or receiving of a financial or other advantage in connection with the ‘improper performance’ of a position of trust, or a function that is expected to be performed impartially or in good faith. So, essentially pretty well anything that could influence the way one writes about a company or its products could be construed as a bribe.

Key words; “advantage”, and “improper performance”. And while the popular notion is that a few days in the sun at a posh hotel is an “advantage”, absence from hearth and home has disadvantages too. One reason for relinquishing my Guild committee-ship was a domestic hiatus resulting from frequent absence on press launches but not before, aware of Breach’s allusions, I suggested setting up an ethics panel. Senior members huffed and puffed. There were still some who thought they were on a gravy train and didn’t want to get off.

Bribing journalists is only successful if it affects what they write. “Improper performance” would presumably mean saying in print that cars were good when they were not. There are journalists who wouldn’t know a good car from a bad one if it ran over them, and some tyre-smoking hooligans incapable of objectivity. But bribery? I don’t believe it. I happily accepted largesse for years and the industry accepted, mostly with equanimity, that it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to what I told readers. Re-issuing some of my old motoring columns as e-books now I add comments. Hindsight puts right misjudgements. Perhaps I was harsh on a 3-series BMW, too kind about a Metro from the dog days of British Leyland.

I don’t think I was ever even offered a bribe. Either nobody attached any importance to what I wrote or they believed my price beyond reach.