The other big story all over yesterday’s news (you’d never think there was a pretty crucial General Election in the near-offing, would you?) was the ongoing controversy about the BBC suspending Jeremy Clarkson and his rather popular television series, Top Gear.
Let me be honest from the outset: I loathe Jeremy Clarkson. I don’t find him in the least bit funny, and I don’t watch Top Gear. There is much on television that I don’t like and that I treat the same way, by not subjecting myself to it, and letting its audience gorge themselves upon shit if that’s what they want, but I’ll admit that Clarkson is one of the extremely few people I would consider censoring (if someone suddenly gave me such authority). Not because he’s a knob, not because he’s a racist, but because Clarkson in the walking, talking poster boy for the attitude that you should be free to do anything you want, at any time, in any place, irrespective of the harm or danger it may cause to others, indeed it’s even funnier if it fucks other people over.
But let’s be a bit objective about this, and the first thing is that we don’t know what Jeremy Clarkson has actually done. I’ve heard various stories, all of which centre around the claim that he physically assaulted an assistant producer during/immediately after location filming, because there was no food for him. So far, that’s a claim.
As to what actually happened, again I’ve heard various stories: that he punched the guy, that he slapped him, that he didn’t actually assault him but tried to do so and was (presumably) restrained from doing so. I’ve even heard the suggestion that this was not the kind of outrageous incident it would be if it occurred during the filming of an afternoon chat show, but something that reflected the laddish culture of the show, something to be expected: sort of like aggravated banter, I suppose?
Like I’ve said, we don’t yet know what actually happened, and how serious it was (personally, I don’t think that a working culture where people physically attack each other is an excuse – and I’m sure that something directed at Mr Clarkson as opposed to by him would be exponentially less acceptable – but it may have a bearing on the seriousness of any offence that has been caused).
What’s interested me most has been the reaction to the announcement of Clarkson’s suspension and, effectively, the premature ending of the current Top Gear series. There is the notorious petition, last heard of somewhere in the region of half a million signatures, demanding he be dis-suspended. There have been people mounting defences of Clarkson on TV on what seems to me to be very specious grounds.
I have no insight into the minds of the half million petitioners. I have read one comment thread on the subject which, given my personal opinion of Clarkson, is very tempting to take as representative: the basic attitude appears to be that Clarkson is popular and funny and that people relish his racist jokes and want to continue hearing them, and that they regard his constant insulting of foreigners on cheaply stereotypical grounds to be fulfilling, possibly because they want to say such things themselves but feel they can’t. (Actually, that last bit is a bit of prejudicial editorialising, so pretend you didn’t read it).
To project that over a half million people is tempting, and may even be broadly accurate, but without evidence it’s certainly unfair. But it does seem to suggest that the petition response is based upon these people liking Clarkson, enjoying Top Gear, and not wanting to be deprived of it, and not upon any actually expressed belief that whatever Clarkson has done is a defensible issue.
A more pernicious, and totally corrupt response was laid out on TV yesterday by a commentator whose name I didn’t catch but who was, I believe, a Talent Agent (I should explain that I work in a Call Centre where all day long we have Sky TV on background screens, but without sound, only sub-titles). This gentleman’s argument was that Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear were immensely popular, that the show brought into the BBC vast sums of money, that any other UK Channel would snap up Clarkson for an identikit show at a moment’s notice, and that it would be a tremendous discourtesy to the (then) 400,000 petitioners to ignore them and actually take action against Clarkson over what he had done.
In short, the perfectly argued Might/Riches makes Right case. indeed, the gentleman was utterly dismissive of Clarkson hitting a producer (the manner in which he described it) as even being an offence, because Clarkson was so popular.
That’s not an argument with which I can sympathise for a nanosecond. Because you’re rich, famous and popular, you do not get a free pass to break the rules of ordinary conduct, like not being allowed to go around physically assaulting people just because you feel like it. Full stop. End of story.
If Jeremy Clarkson did so, and again I’ll stress I don’t know what he did so I’m not making any judgements, and if that conduct – whether in isolation or set against the background of his past conduct – is serious enough to warrant sacking, then the fact that he’s Jeremy Clarkson and brings in wads of cash for the Beeb and that he won’t suffer from it is no justification for letting it slide. Indeed, it’s completely the opposite, because it encourages the rich, famous and popular to further believe that they are entitled to do whatever the hell they like to or with the ‘little people’.
If what he’s done, when it comes out, doesn’t warrant a sacking then, by the same token, he should not be sacked because he is rich, famous and popular and a message needs to be sent.
As for the probabilities of what he’s done, I don’t think it’s just my prejudice that makes the account very plausible, but that’s nothing to do with proof. I’m more impressed by the fact that whatever happened, it was considered sufficiently serious by the BBC as to warrant Clarkson’s suspension, and pulling the programme out of the schedules which, in the face of the arguments as to the financial implications (including potential multimillion pound suits across the globe for failure to provide contracted episodes) suggests there is something of substance to this.
We’ll learn more as we go along. In the meantime, perhaps some people could not act like dickheads and go around suggesting that it doesn’t matter if Jeremy Clarkson does stick one on someone as long as I get my Top Gear of a Sunday night with a touch of blatant xenophobia. That’s the sickening bit.