Why can’t Filipino journalists be more like Jeremy Clarkson?

- BACKSEAT DRIVER By James Deakin -
About a month ago, Dong Magsajo jumped into the driver’s seat of this column and did the equivalent of doing donuts on your front lawn. He really managed to blow a few of your airbags with his "class vs crass" article, to the point where I think the people from SMART and GLOBE sent him fruit baskets to thank him for all the messages he generated through their networks.

But while there were a lot of messages of support, as well as a couple of people who just wanted to greet their text mates, there were the inevitable texts that we were all dreading: "Why can’t Filipino journalists be more like Jeremy Clarkson on the hit British TV show Top Gear? He is not afraid to be honest, and tells it like it really is." Interesting. Well, if you’ve got a little time to spare, I’ll tell you what I think.

Firstly, aside from the fact that we live in a country where journalists actually get shot for speaking out, let me just say that there can only ever be one Jeremy Clarkson. Just like there will only ever be one Howard Stern, or Simon Cowell. Everyone else is just a cheap imitation. And if you think that the dangers of journalism only extend to the political beat of Mindanao, just ask Dong Magsajo, who had to drag two of his motoring colleagues out of a showroom launch early this year after they had allegedly been beaten up and had a gun drawn on them by the owner’s bodyguard, simply for printing an unflattering piece. So, to compare a motoring journalist to Jeremy Clarkson would be like comparing CNN to the Jay Leno show.

Plus, if you have all the corporate might of the BBC in your corner, you can afford to piss a few multinationals off just to get a few laughs. All in the name of entertainment. And this is where the line gets fuzzy. While most people enjoy Jeremy’s show for what it is — a brilliantly produced, fabulously presented and thoroughly entertaining tribute to cars — there are some that take every word like it were the Gospel according to Jeremy. When really, it is just supposed to be entertainment; kind of like motoring’s version of professional wrestling.

Okay, that may not paint the fairest picture, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it prioritizes entertainment over everything. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, so long as you know what you’re in for.

But who better to ask than some of Jeremy’s closest friends and peers in the industry. So, during a hearty dinner in a cozy little Italian restaurant in Monaco with evo magazine UK’s editor-in-chief, Harry Metcalfe and some executives of Dennis publishing, I threw the topic down on the table for discussion. Wow. It was like I lit a match during a gas leak.

"Jeremy is a great fellow. But some of the things he says on TV is absolute bollocks," Harry confessed after a couple of glasses of red. "As funny as he is, I cringe sometimes watching his show, because as a journalist and enthusiast that has driven and owned most of those cars, a lot of it is just not true." "Even he doesn’t agree with everything he says on TV." The chap on Harry’s left interrupted.

"Jeremy is a fabulous entertainer, but he started wanting more say in what was said, and the BBC didn’t want to tamper with the proven formula." Harry continued, and later admitted to calling Jeremy up and offering him an editorial page in evo magazine, to give him a chance to say what he really felt about cars. "You see, what most people don’t know is, beneath the celebrity persona that has earned Jeremy almost cult status among his followers, lies a real car nut with a lot of very interesting — not necessarily funny — things to say about cars and the industry he loves. He just can’t say them on TV, because it’s not, well, funny enough. That bothered him." Just like when a comedian wants to start being taken seriously as an actor.

"The final stab came when Top Gear won an award for the best unscripted television show. A wonderful accolade, sure, but spare a thought for Richard Meaden and John Barker, the poor buggers that write for the show, who must have felt like chopped liver during the awards ceremony." Harry finished off.

By this stage, many at the dinner table were stunned and had barely lifted a fork since Harry began chatting so candidly. Not everyone could recall the connection between Harry and Jeremy during the Performance Car magazine days, where they both got their start in the business, so most were shocked by Harry’s invitation to his chief rival. But business aside, the two are friends first, and to this day, still live only a few miles apart. Harry continued to tell us that he put a package together and submitted it to Jeremy’s wife, who also happens to be his manager, and it was being very seriously considered. But in the end, it was not to be, and Jeremy eventually came to terms with the BBC. When I asked Harry how much he offered Jeremy, he didn’t even flinch when he said, £10,000 a month. That is just shy of 1 million pesos, and presumably nowhere near the amount Jeremy would have settled on to continue on with the show.

Locally, we are as far away from this scenario as we are a nuclear threat to the USA, which should already answer the bulk of the question posed at the start of dinner. We’re talking about a very mature industry in the UK, with marketing budgets bigger than our GNP. Welcome to major league motoring. They have less people over there but they sell more than twenty times the volume of cars we sell over here. Twenty times. Just absorb that for a moment and then wonder why we can’t pull some of those same stunts over here that Clarkson and his team get away with over there.

But I’ll admit, we can still do a lot better than we are doing right now. But between you and me, the real problem is not so much with the odd "envelopmental" journalists. It’s with those that feed them. As much as I believe that cars have improved dramatically over the last 20 years and have left little room for harsh criticism, I can’t say the same for some of their manufacturers. A few of them still live in the eighties. They are so petrified of change that they insulate themselves from growth with their petty fears and their hired entourage of overfed guard dogs. These are the real culprits that are weighing the industry down with their antiquated PR practices that continue to breed a culture of corrupt journalists that will sing any tune they ask for. And if they can’t corrupt you, they try and destroy you.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been hauled in front of ad agencies to defend an article I’ve written; or the amount of advertising revenue I’ve seen go up in smoke because I chose to say what I think. I have been banned from borrowing from one manufacturer for saying the ride of their pick up was bumpier than a hunchback on a camel. One manufacturer threatened to pull all his ads out of my radio show until he realized he didn’t have any to begin with. Believe it or not, he had the gall to call up the station and promised to place ads but only if I interview him on air. Naturally I refused. I mean, how cheesy can you get? Asking to be interviewed is like offering someone your autograph — you should wait to be asked.

Perhaps this has started to paint a clearer picture of why we can’t all be like Clarkson.

And even if we could, let’s be realistic. I can’t speak for all motoring journalists of course, but just because someone doesn’t make fun of a car, or had a lot of great things to say about it, that doesn’t always mean that they have been paid off or are too scared to tell the truth. The simple truth is, not every car is bad, and calling one crap doesn’t insure honesty, either. Crap is relative; a Kia econobox may be crap to you, but it’s someone else’s Pride. And joy. Cars are an extension of our personalities, so before sticking the knife in, I think about the owners first, not the manufacturers that peddle them. No car is perfect, sure, but while I have no problem pointing their weaknesses out, I will never pick up a test unit just to see what I can find wrong with it and then tear it to shreds — in the end, I chose to write about cars because I love them, not to rubbish them.

"For us, the real problem here is not so much Jeremy or his show. It’s all the copycats," a senior of Dennis publishing piped in. "In the UK, we’ve seen a growing trend since Jeremy’s rise to stardom that is even more alarming than the problems of the ‘praise releasers’ you have mentioned. Every punter over here with four wheels and a right foot thinks he can be just like Clarkson, and it’s gotten bloody annoying. And damaging. They think that by rubbishing a car, that makes them honest."

So, while the grass may seem greener on the other side, it just means they have a higher water bill; and the incredible irony here is, as advanced as the UK industry may be, they have exactly the same problem as us, albeit at the opposite end of the same principal; while it’s true that there will always be journalists over here that are stepping over each other just to kiss the largest patch of a manufacturer’s butt, the UK seem to be breeding some to do the exact opposite all in the name of ratings. The only difference is that one style chooses flattery over battery, but neither, it seems, bother to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that all you were asking for to begin with?

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