Whither Which?

News of The World gets fact wrong (par for the course, but still...)

It’s not terribly surprising when a columnist for a Sunday tabloid gets a basic fact wrong. Motorists don’t pay to use roads, not even News of the World motoring journalists. But it’s somehow an awful lot more shocking when Which? gets something wrong. In the Spring 2010 issue of Which? Car, there’s a two page article on car tax but it’s headlined as ‘road tax’ and graphics go on to compound the error.


So, thinking Which? Car journalists might not know the difference between car tax and ‘road tax’ I dropped the editor an email. His reply shows that Which? Car is more interested in its Google ranking than accuracy. What, Which?

Here’s Richard Headland’s full reply.

Many thanks for your correspondence about the use of ‘car tax’, ‘road tax’ and ‘VED’ in Which? magazines and our website. I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify our position.

We are not disputing that the correct term for this duty is vehicle excise duty, and we do already use this widely in our publications. Most drivers do not refer to their tax disc in this way, though, and the abbreviation VED is not widely recognised. So it would not be appropriate to simply use VED; and the full name, while correct, is both long and overly formal.

Having checked on Google analytics today, there are 1 million searches a month in the UK for the term ‘car tax’, 368,000 for the term ‘road tax’, 6,600 for the term ‘vehicle excise duty’ and 40,500 for ‘VED’. I think this clearly indicates the relative usage of these terms in the UK when refer to vehicle excise duty – rightly or wrongly.

When creating online content, it is very important users are able to find it, so we are often guided by such data. There would be little point us creating the most comprehensive guide to UK Vehicle Excise Duty if few people are searching for that term. I suspect this is one reason why the Government’s own direct.gov site refers principally to ‘car tax’ – to make it easier to find and more approachable to the end user.

So while I do not propose we will stop using the terms ‘car tax’ and ‘road tax’ online, I will endeavour to make sure these are used with the appropriate reference to the full name of the tax.

In the magazine, we do not have the ‘Google issue’, and we have recently updated our style guide to exclude the term ‘road tax’ in favour of ‘car tax’. Again, will ensure we reference VED where space permits.

We have no political axe to grind by using the phrase ‘road tax’. They are many keen cyclists on the Which? Car team and we don’t see a lot of the problems you refer to with motorists believing they ‘own the roads’ because they pay this tax.
We do not wish to give misleading or inaccurate information but, while I acknowledge the validity of your point of view, it is important we use the language with which people are most familiar – at the very least to help them find our content.

One final point I’d like to raise is that Which? Car is a publication protected by copyright. Am I to presume you obtained our permission before reproducing magazine pages on your website?

With best regards,
Richard Headland
Motoring Editor

So, the Which? organisation has been told of an error, won’t correct it because of Google ranking, and then gets uppity when the page containing the error is reproduced?

I emailed back with a solution. Which? Car could henceforth include a box-out saying the term ‘road tax’ might be in common usage but it is incorrect and of potential danger to cyclists. It’s fine to use the term ‘road tax’ (this site uses it after all) just so long as there’s an explanatory caveat. This would get round the Google search term issue. It would also be in keeping with the Which? reputation for accuracy.

I was glad to hear many members of the Which? Car team are cyclists. At some point they will be accused of being “tax dodgers”. I suggested Richard Headland do a search on YouTube: helmet-cams are now capturing motorist v cyclist abuse over ‘road tax’. Such as the ‘no pay, no say’ video.

The phrase ‘road tax’ – which seems so innocent – is used by a small minority of people as a term of abuse. Many other terms of abuse were once in common usage but have now fallen out of use. Of all publications, I’d expect Which? to be the most scrupulous, the one with most attention to detail.

[UPDATE: Which?Car has tweeted: “We’ve explained to @carltonreid why we used such tax terminology, but will prefer ‘car tax’ in future.”