Earlier today, the motoring journalist Mark Hales was found by a court to be liable for the damage done to the engine of a Porsche 917 he was driving for a magazine feature.
I know not enough of the case to enter the specifics, but the key question was this: Did the engine blow because the experienced Hales was driving (i.e. he missed a gear), or did it blow simply while he was behind the wheel (i.e. an unavoidable mechanical failure)? The court held it was the former, and he is now facing a six-figure bill for repairs.
The response, online especially, has been very, very clear: Hales – Twitter in particular seems to believe – has been incredibly hard-done-by, and a number of motoring journalists, team personnel and racing drivers have rallied in support of him to help raise funds to pay the substantial bill.
It’s important though to recognise the “you break it you buy it” mantra which David Piper – who owned the car, and brought the case to the court – successfully enforced has potentially dangerous consequences for this kind of testing.
Which begs the question: Will this sort of journalism become less and less common if the threat of a large bill looms over them?
We often speak of the “cost” of journalism in a metaphoric sense, be it morally or otherwise. There is a very literal cost here – a big one, and potentially many more in the future if this case is used as a precedence and disgruntled owners see it as a reason to pursue their own damages claims.
And, of course, there’s the question of what the cost will be to the motoring magazine. Gone are the days when the motorsport fan or car enthusiast would go to the shops for the latest issue of Autocar or MotorSport to get the latest news from the automotive world – that’s what, by and large, the internet is for.
Magazines remain a brilliantly unique way of being expressive in design and content and in a world where news value is shrinking for magazines, features are becoming more and more important, because they provide unique content – and that’s the seller.
Will track tests become a thing of the past for fear of financial retribution? Possibly. At the moment, the impact is very much a human one, as a well-respected, well-liked journalist and individual is left to count the cost of what is perceived by most to be a grossly unfair decision.
If it keeps him away from this sort of thing in the future it is a great loss – and as MotorSport's Andrew Frankel said, you sincerely hope he ends up being an exception rather than a precedent.