Prickgate

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.

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19 thoughts on “Prickgate

  1. Good article. Well written. however I feel you, as have many who have taken this comment out of context have entirely missed the point.
    This was clearly a joke. It may have been in bad taste and it may have been ill-advised but it was a joke. And it was not a joke at the strikers expense, it was a joke about the BBC and its need to remain balanced. The comment which gave so much offence was tongue in cheek hyperbole to ‘balance’ what he had said before.
    Whatever your feelings about Clarkson, if you* watch this in its entirety or indeed just read the transcript yet can not concede that this was entirely a comedic sketch intended to yes, offend but also to amuse, then I think you have some comprehension malfunction.

    the rest of the article about free speech ( which despite some protection in European human rights law we still don’t have in the UK ) and how one should respond to incidents like this is spot on.

    *I use ‘you’ to mean the general you as in ‘everybody’

  2. In fairness to Clarkson (although I strongly dislike him), his ‘joke’ was taken out of context. As a whole, it was a joke about the BBC’s idea of balance.

  3. I like how everyone has forgotten he said that he quite liked the strikes (not for the same reasons but hey ho). He was quite clearly trying to make a joke. In the same way that Stewart Lee (whom I love) did with the Richard Hammond thing. If he had said I believe Black folk should be sent ‘home’ or the Nazi’s had the right idea, I could understand the reaction but he made a jokey comment about being fair on both sides of the argument.

    I’m from Forfar in Scotland and don’t have a lot of friends that work in the public sector but I’d say 80% of the people I know are against the strikes for the same reason that Clarkson gave (while obviously not wanting anyone shot). Does not supporting strikes make me a bad person? It seems that way. Matthew Wright thought today that the strikers abusing the non strikers (scabs) was ok as everyone should unite with their ‘brothers’… In 1984, coal miners when their jobs were being taken away YES.. losing some money on an already amazing pension when the country is going to the wall.. NO.

    Ok, rant over.

    Lindsey Scott

    • It’s entirely fine to support or not support the strikes. This is not about being “right” or “wrong”, which is why I am not calling for the man’s sacking. I don’t agree with him, but I do not wish him punished. So I agree with you, Lindsey – not about the strikes, but about the right to free speech.

      You’re right that it was a “jokey comment” but many took it badly because it involved executing people.

  4. Yep, Clarkson’s a knob, but he’s *just a knob* and it’s clearly a joke in context.

    I don’t think it’s even a joke hiding the fact that he really thinks it. Judging by his contempt when asked if he knows anybody who works in the public sector, he apparently thinks it’s something that affects other people.

    I’m sure you could equally clip out Jeremy Hardy or Mark Thomas saying “all Tories should be hung” from the middle of a joke.

    The appearance was worth it though, just to see his confusion when there wasn’t a hangar-full of acolytes to laugh at his every ‘outrageous’ ‘opinion’.

    • That final comment is astute. You’re absolutely right. It’s like when Jasper Carrott went on Saturday Live and did his women drivers/mother-in-law routine to a “post-alternative” Channel 4 crowd.

  5. I do slightly buy into the Clarkson brand. I disagree with much of what he says, but I rather like his turn of phrase and his general prose style.

    However, what may have been meant as a joke about balance seems to have betrayed the real invective that people of the political persuasion for whom Clarkson’s views, as opposed to his persona or prose, are a sort of avatar reserve for those who have the affront to deliver the public services they depise so much.

    There is a barely restrained tinge of bile about the delivery of the actual words he chose, even if he did have the plausible deniability of “making a joke about balance at the BBC”

    I’m afraid on this occasion a man whose work has entertained me in the past, and probably will in the future, made a bit of an arse of himself.

    Should he be sacked for it? No of course not. If we were all sacked whenever we did something daft or misjudged then no work would ever get done.

  6. Nice blog.

    I actually quite like Jeremy Clarkson. I even watch Top Gear even though I don’t drive, have non interest in cars, and am generally liberal. This was just a silly joke about the BBC needing to be balanced. He said he liked it (for selfish reasons of course) then balanced it with an extreme opposite opinion.

    I didn’t see the clip about people throwing themselves under trains and affecting his journey, but if anything is offensive about JC’s comments, it’s that.

    Let’s not call for his sacking. As, I think Dave Gorman said on Twitter, thats what THEY do. People shouldn’t be sacked for jokes (especially when they are not deliberately offensive). One of my Facebook friends is even calling on him to be charged with incitement to
    hatred!

  7. I would say the phrase ‘hoist by his own petard springs to mind’. Here is a man who spends large amounts of column inches ranting over the disgraceful fact that people like Abu Hamza are allowed to spout bigotted rubbish on the streets of Britain and now finds himself facing the angry masses for his own repellent comments. It shows 2 things: That freedom of speech is incredibly important and that means letting Clarkson and Hamza share their odious views regardless of personal opinion and that secondly there is nothing more ignorant, stupid and hypocritical than a bigot with a camera pointed at them. Good blog by the way!

  8. As always seems to be the case in these situations, people start waving the freedom of speech flag and it’s a total red herring. He was a “guest” on a BBC show. He was being paid to be there. There’s at the very least a tacit understanding there about what’s required and about what isn’t acceptable. You take the money, you abide by that understanding. He can write what he likes in his books as long as his publisher is happy to publish it. He can say what he likes in his columns as long as his paper’s happy to print it. I don’t get the privilege of going on The One Show and saying who should be shot, and neither does he.

    On the other hand, yes it was a joke and – on a superficial level at least – it wasn’t about Clarkson wanting people to be shot. As a joke it was unsuitable for the show and he shouldn’t have said it. He took the money; he should have known better. An apology was sufficient and to be fair the unions seem to have got it in perspective fairly quickly.

    But…

    He talked about people being shot in front of their families. Other people – who aren’t The State, or representatives of The State – merely expressed their view that he should be sacked. That’s just the freedom of speech too, no? That’s their right as much as it’s his. And a world in which there’s no one to speak up for the workers – public sector or otherwise… well, that’s where we’re heading anyway it seems.

    I wonder how funny his currently middle class fan club will be finding his I’m-just-a-big-schoolboy-with-a-big-house-and-a-big-car schtick in a few years, when their own aspirations have been somewhat downsized. Just maybe, by then, they’ll understand that the unions were fighting for them too. But to fill in the awkward gap between now and too late, yes, let’s all just laugh at Tory Boy laughing his head off at us.

  9. Clearly an idiotic mistake to make for Clarkson to say that on the One show, a family program, with children who are watching who are well aware the people who he is referring to are his/her parents, even if the kids are aware of the joke, they may still be upset to know that Clarkson has such a dim view of their parents.
    Clearly not suitable for The One Show.
    But the mistake was not so much Clarkson’s as it was the BBC’s, who on earth thought it would be a good idea to put Clarkson on The One Show on the day of the strikes and then ask him for his thoughts?
    I get the impression this is part of the desperate attempts to curry favour with the Tory’s, they thought they’d make Dave happy by putting his ‘Chipping Norton Set’ mate and Britains most popular right-wing mouth-piece to denigrate the strikers and turning popularist “Top Gear” loving Britain against the strikers, and hopefully in return Dave doesn’t crush the “leftist” Corporation like a bug.

  10. “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” – one question, Andrew, how can you make the comparison?

    Sachsgate: there were two complaints in the week after broadcast.

    The thousands of complaint began during broadcast of The One Show.

    The Mail on Sunday newspaper – you know its role in Sachsgate, surely.

    • You’re right that the gestation period was different between the two “scandals”. But in all other respects, there’s plenty to compare. And one upset right-wing moralists, while the other upset left-wing moralists. By and large. Not quite sure why you question my audacity to compare?

  11. Sachsgate: two idiots directly in the pay of the BBC – and on the BBC’s time – rang an old man and left obscene personal messages on his answerphone. I don’t think either has since indicated that they did not actually do this – that it was not what it seemed.

    Obviously the two events bear comparison, but only in terms of the reaction to them. The Sachsgate incident was far, far worse than this. And just because very few licence fee payers old enough to understand just why it was so wrong were actually listening at the time, it doesn’t make their outrage any less justified.

    But maybe – to make the comparison absolutely exact – the BBC should invite Ricky Gervais onto The One Show and get him to ring up, say, David Attenborough and call him a mong. Then we can compare the resulting viewer response.

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