If I had been paid a pound every time I’d been accused of favouritism, bias and that gloss had been applied to a review to ensure it looked as favourable as possible, I’d drink far nicer tea, eat more expensive chocolate biscuits and be able to sample some of that craft ale that I keep hearing so much about. But I digress…
Whilst researching ideas for the next column on this here website (aka sitting around doing nothing, when I could realistically have spent time being more productive…) my good friend Haris Ali popped round to drop off some magazines that he didn’t want. Knowing that I am something of a fan of all things ancient, he knew that the sight of Airfix, Modelworld and AIR Enthusiast/International magazines would fill me with pleasure. He was not wrong. So when I got a moment, cup of tea in hand, I set about reading the latest additions to my collection of dust-gathering publications.
Amongst the interesting articles, build features, aeronautical wonders and adverts for shops long-gone, I was struck by the editorials. Penned no later that 1982 in most cases, the one thing that struck me, was that little has really changed within this hobby over the intervening 40-odd years in terms of points to discuss. Much of the discourse was concerned with the quality of kits, details required by the enthusiast, details offered by the manufacturers, why a particular prototype has been kitted when another would have been preferable and why, in the case of those tasked with penning the material that modellers read, authors – and reviewers in particular – there is a tendency to gloss over issues that even to the blind, would be more than obvious. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The editorial that sparked this particular rambling diatribe was entitled “…so shall ye reap!” and was found in the March 1982 edition of the superb and now, long-gone, AIR International magazine. In essence, the author, Fred Henderson (famous builder of the Tiger Moth that many of you will remember from the Matchbox adds that we all love. You do love them, right?) was discussing how their round-up of thoughts on the previous year’s modelling scene, had drawn some fire from those who seemed to feel that he/they were being overly generous to manufacturers. In turn, he/they had ignored what had really caused the issues seen during 1981, seeemingly a perceived paucity of releases and when they did arrive, not ones that those pulling the pin of dubious thoughts, felt to be interesting enought to persuade them to part with money for said kits.
Much of this was down to the conservatism of the manufactures they went on to say, ‘safe’ choices being made when bravery would have resulted in kits that had not been seen before (think Kotare daring to release another boring Spitfire Mk.I in 1/32 when a Scruggs Wonderplane would have been far more interesting and you start to get the picture… ). Such was the ire on show, that one modeller had decided that his letter should not be published (a decision reinforced in red by the inscription “NOT FOR PUBLICATION!”) and then gone on to say he would no longer read a single word written by this team ever again (though he failed it seemed, to decide wether anything else within the pages of AIR International would be read and absorbed). I couldn’t help but laugh at this inclusion of fascinatingly penned detail. As an editor that has been on the recieving end of such laugable threats in the past, I couldn’t help but imagine the team at AIR International responding with a shrug of the shoulders, a gulp of tea and the quite understandable response, and?! as the letter was scrunched up and nonchalantly tossed over shoulder into overflowing bin. But this was not all this particular scribe had to say (it never is, is it?) going on to accuse the team of being lackeys to the modelling industry (what, all of it?!) and then falling over backwards to ensure that no criticism, no matter how small, went their way. You see: nothing has changed…
Why this particular point stood out as much as it did, should be obvious to most as it’s nothing new and pervades modelling discourse to this day, especially from those that are keen to appear relevant, when their modelling and models cannot do the talking for them. If I had been paid a pound every time I’d been accused of favouritism, bias and that gloss had been applied to a review to ensure it looked as favourable as possible, I’d drink far nicer tea, eat more expensive chocolate biscuits and be able to sample some of that craft ale that I keep hearing so much about. But I digress…
Much of the accusatory in-coming tends to be from those that feel that my opinion – and by association, the opinions of others within the industry – cannot be honest because… we get given kits for free. “Yes, but you get free kits, products that sway your opinion!” Well, I do get free kits, but I have to do something with them – they are not there to brighten up my office! I also buy kits that are used for reviews and the like, the Airfix 1/48 Sabre that I built for Model Airplane International being one such example. But still the engine runs on down the tracks. Such is the pervasive nature of this particular runaway train of thought, I wonder if I will ever be able to successfully argue against it. I fear that the answer to that is indeed, no, especially when there are ex-scribes to fuel the fire, commentators who have decided that it is their place to set the record straight before blasting their thoughts through the PA of social media, click-bait guardians of all that is just, fair and honest.
In this case, the accusation of bias was less than subtle, as indeed it is in many cases today. But it was also unfair. Many of the reviews written during those years, in that magazine in particular, were so pointed and so honest, I really had to wonder what the detractors had been reading. Fred Henderson was certainly not one to pull punches and when they landed on kits that he might have liked but not loved (the then new 1/48 Matchbox range being a particular case for concern, Seasprite and Fury) those thoughts told me that his was an opinion to trust. Indeed, I have built both of those kits over the years, so I can tell you his opinions were indeed spot on. The same could be said for Scale Models and Airfix Magazine, where authors such as Roger Chesneau (aka Joe Saki), Geoff Prentice, Chris Ellis, Ray Rimell et al, were hardly backwards in coming forward with their thoughts on a particular product. Indeed, I remember having a long conversation with the late, great, David Hannant, who complained bitterly about the negativity that Geoff generated through his condemnation of Microscale instructions in their decal sheets, something he revelled in, seemingly with every individual review. And of course he was right: Microscale instructions were in the main, shocking, so pointing that out was his job, despite the fact that he was handed dozens of sheets a year to review and the flow of samples never stopped.
The same accusations take wing today, despite there being many trustworthy reviewers that put pen to paper in order to let readers know what is available and with samples to hand, how those kits look. And yet questions persist from those that seemingly feel that all we are doing is hungrily riding the gravy train and that free kits are more important than honesty and integrity. Well, maybe they have a point. And maybe not.
I’ve been in this game a long time (almost 30 years) and have seen both sides come in to bat. I’ve seen the most honest reviewers tell the truth about kits that ranged from poor to downright awful and then had that supply cut off, and I’ve seen others say a kit was fine, despite having seen it myself and found it to be anything but! I’ve seen those that care not one jot about samples, feeling that integrity is more important and I’ve seen and indeed been witness to conversations about a kit or product, where the favourable has overwhelmed the honest. I’ve seen the ill-informed espouse opinions in contradiction with noted experts in their field. Poor modellers, berate those with skills to envy. Kits reviewed before they’ve even been released, CAD drawings or early renders being enough to form opinions, some that have been entirely correct, many that have been the result of nothing more than personal emnity. I’ve seen it all, but I’m happy to say that the former has been far more prevalent than the latter, honesty from the majority being an almost overwhelming factor of the industry. Why? Because reputations are very hard earned, but they are so easily lost. And frankly, I, like many that I know and trust, are not about to lose ours for the price of a small plastic kit…
Snide, back of hand comments about perceived bias will always persist within this hobby, of that, there is no doubt. The two companies that most often find themselves on the receiving end of these comments are Airfix and Tamiya. It’s odd that such different concerns should find themselves subject to such things, and yet they do. “But yes, you would say that, wouldn’t you, fanboy?!” Fanboy. That’s the appellation that is most often thrown in the air by those that want an accusation of bias to stick, but don’t have the glue with which to cement more informed thoughts in place. Fanboy. “You only say that because you are a fan of the company and despite my feelings to the contrary, you can say what you like and I will never believe you.” So, you don’t believe me when I say a kit is really impressive and you don’t believe me when I say that is not so great? Do you see the contradiction in that position? Seriously, you can’t have it both ways!
As an author, I really feel that I can only ever do my best and tell the truth as I see it and that’s exactly what I could see from those magazines from the late 70s/early 80s. I spent time reading through a lot of the modelling chapters within each one that preceded that editorial and saw no evidence of overt, positive bias, any more than I see much of it around in 2021. I think that the real issue is not that authors gloss over issues, but that they have so little space to discuss them. Realistically, how much can you fit into a 200 word thumbnail appraisal, written to a tight deadline? Not much. Add to that the idea that an author might be covering a number of bases and you will soon see that they can only appraise what’s in front of them. I might be able to spot errors within a Harrier kit because that is an area of expertise; another author who may specialise in WWII fighters, might not be so well-informed. It’s far easier to pen a well-rounded review over weeks for a website, blog or forum where space is not an issue, than it is in hours for a commercial publication where you have a few lines and a couple of images to get your point across. Of course the counter argument to that would be to drop such ‘reviews’ altogether if they are not going to be detailed enough, but then magazines would be cutting down on large numbers of kits that otherwise would not see their turn in the spotlight. Swings and roundabouts…
Reading through these old magazines, not only helps to build the foundations of my historical knowledge of both the industry and hobby that revolves around it, it helps to reassure me that modellers have really, aways been the same. Four decades ago, we all cared about the same things that we do now and though choice was not as great back then, expectations were in line with what was possible in plastic and paint. Kits were looked at, models were built, letters were written to critique the critical, or not, depending on your point of view. The more things change, the more they stay the same: were it ever not thus?
See you next time.
LET ME TELL YOU WHEN I POST NEW MATERIAL!
If you have enjoyed reading this, please subscribe to this website with your email address. By doing that, you will be notified whenever I upload new material each week. You can simply subscribe using the box that you will find on the homepage of this website.
Thanks a lot – I look forward to hearing from you!