French journalist arrested in car espionage case

Published: 17 July 2008

A French journalist from Auto Plus magazine has been arrested for possessing photos of the next-generation Renault Scenic. It raises fears for us writers beavering away trying to spill the beans on secret new cars – but I’m not too worried. Yet.

I’ve spent most of the past decade trying to unearth the lowdown on future cars: speaking to engineers, deciphering spy photos, filtering the wheat from the chat in the wider media, quizzing analysts and generally piecing together the new-model programmes for every car manufacturer on the planet. Have I ever been arrested? Thankfully not. French privacy laws are stricter than the UK’s, although you do worry that Europe homogenisation could change that.

Renault Scenic: the ‘illegal’ spy photos

The case centres around the next-gen Renault Scenic, photos of which Auto Plus journo Bruno Thomas ‘obtained’ through unclear means. Was it a drink with a loose-lipped engineer? A favour in return for a payment? Or just good old-fashioned skulduggery? We’re not sure.

Nor are French police, who reacted to a complaint from Renault and raided Auto Plus’s Parisian HQ. Thomas was hauled in front of a judge on five counts of industrial espionage.

Auto Plus: ‘a breach of confidence and copyright’

The charges range from a breach of confidence and breach of copyright – serious charges that are denied by the French newshound. The press handlers at Renault are clearly none too happy with this particular scoop. Which is a refreshing change in an age when some manufacturers actively plant spyshots as part of their pre-launch publicity programme.

No recent CAR journalist has, in my memory, been arrested. Maybe it could be a badge of honour to which news journalists aspire. But the Auto Plus case proves there is a fine line between criminal activity and good, thorough investigative journalism.

As the British Sunday tabloid the News of the World discovered to its peril with the royal phone-tap scandal, you cross that line at your peril.

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet