I’m wary of writing about this yet, as when I read the paper this morning, the BBC had received about 5,000 complaints about Jeremy Clarkson‘s bons mots on Wednesday night’s The One Show, but having just checked the story on the Guardian website, it appears to have snowballed to 21,000. I sincerely doubt he will be sacked, as Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were, but whether it was a pre-emptive attempt to promote whatever his latest book of columns is called or a more spontaneous glimpse into his soul, the outcome is certainly getting away from him. He left the country for Beijing yesterday, but it’s in this country that his human rights are being most severely challenged.
We all “get” Jeremy Clarkson. Whether or not we share his country squire’s right-wing views, we know what he’s doing. He was once merely a car reviewer on a car review TV programme that took off and became a hugely profitable international brand. In the midst of this, because he was the definitive presenter of that programme (and, I say objectively, a very good one), and because it was his cocky, arch, pause-laden presenting style that had helped brand it, Clarkson also became a brand. They gave him his own chat show. Short-lived, but a mark of the BBC’s investment in him. I sincerely hope the Sunday Times gave him a pay rise, as they suddenly had a superstar car reviewer; he was given his own column in the main paper, where he could let off steam about whatever was on his country squire’s mind. And off he went.
He must now live up to his own reputation for reactionary, steam-coming-out-of-his-ears, middle English thinking and supply rants by the yard (or inch). His books are huge bestsellers, and they are mainly his columns collected together. The idea is: you read his views because he speaks for you, in a humorous manner that usually stretches an armchair-political point – such as boo hoo hoo, there’s a “war on motorists”, or environmentalists are “killjoys” – until it snaps. On one level, it’s harmless fun; it doesn’t really matter; he’s just mucking about; he’s a clown and a jester. On another level, when he calls, humorously, for striking public sector workers to be “shot, in front of their families” for having “gilt-edged pensions” while “the rest of us have to work for a living,” on the day of a national strike, he crosses the line from knockabout to incendiary. Here’s the clip, if you haven’t seen it.
If he was a comedian, which he isn’t, you could chalk it up to saying something outrageous in order to be funny, which it wasn’t. It was merely a rant. There’s no need to reheat the arguments about when is humour entitled to shock and when isn’t it, as Clarkson was not rehearsing a new routine, he was – let’s be generous – pretending that he thought striking nurses and ambulance crews should be executed for effect. Well, it had an effect. Well done, Jeremy.
Apologies have been made. The One Show – whose presenters Matt and Alex looked pretty uncomfortable after his rant – apologised. The BBC have apologised. And so has Clarkson (“If the BBC and I have caused any offence, I’m quite happy to apologise for it alongside them”). Unfortunately, liberal Britain has Clarkson between its teeth, in the same way that right-wing Britain frothed into a mushroom cloud of dissent and disgust after Sachsgate. Different constituency, same outcome: exponential fury, outrage leading to more outrage. My guess is that it will die down. After all, apart from bad timing – or good timing, depending whose team you’re on – Clarkson is only sticking to his own party line. He’s probably said something similar, if not exactly the same, in one of his columns, which means it’ll be in one of his bestselling books. I certainly can’t be bothered to check. Life is too short.
If you did anything other than call for Clarkson’s oblong head on a spike yesterday, you were accused of being an apologist for his views. I’m merely an apologist for free speech. I don’t agree with his idiotic views, but I don’t think he should be sacked. What from? A motoring show? A newspaper? On what charge? Saying something I don’t agree with? If he’s done anything, he’s proved himself to be something of a prick to a larger audience than would normally choose to read or watch him. I’m sure he makes similar remarks when his Witney neighbour David Cameron comes round to dinner, and I’m sure David Cameron laughs, secure in the knowledge that they’re on the same page but Jeremy doesn’t have to watch what he says. And because they’re in private, and you can say what you like in private.
It would be much more shocking if David Cameron, or Baronet Osborne, said that they thought strikers should be shot. They might well think it, but they are not going to say it. They are politicians. Jeremy Clarkson is not. I didn’t vote for him, by buying his books, or watching his television programme, but millions did. I doubt he’s lost any voters in all this. He’s in a safe seat.
In many ways, the ridiculous speed at which calls for a man’s sacking hardens from Twitter outrage to national orthodoxy, and then dies away, means that things go crazy for a couple of days, and then stop. Just as records go straight into the charts at number one or they might as well not bother. Clarkson just went straight to number one. There’ll be another prick along in a minute. (Somebody wise commented yesterday: Clarkson says what Cameron thinks. So true. Interesting that the Daily Mail have been slow in coming forward on this one. It’s almost as if … they agree with Clarkson. It’s almost as if … they all wish they were more like him, and lived in the countryside too.)
I think the strikers should be applauded, in front of their families, but nobody is going to quote that, or complain about it. I Tweeted something about Christmas trees and George Osborne the other day and a man I have never met or heard of who had made the tactical error of following me responded, “Less of the leftist bile, thank you.” I advised him to stop following me, and he did. End of local difficulty. I say to Jeremy Clarkson: less of the rightist bile, thank you. But, until he left his political comfort zone and went on The One Show (which I didn’t even watch!), I wasn’t following him.
And I am still not following him.
Oh, and if you want to read the full transcript, the Guardian ran it here. For context, you understand. Because I haven’t put Clarkson into enough context.
An interesting postscript: in July, I reviewed Top Gear in my weekly Telly Addict for the Guardian. If you can be bothered to watch it, you’ll see my positive assessment of his presenting style – in context! – and even if you can’t be bothered, have a look at the comments beneath, many of which railed against the Guardian for having a party line against Clarkson without bothering to watch my review, which, if they had done, rather disproved that very truism.