Unlike the entirety of the country, I’ve restrained myself from passing judgement on Jeremy Clarkson, until now. Everyone has had an opinion on his ‘fracas’, and (even worse) they’ve all decided to share it with the rest of us. But the story is still going strong, and I’m just about fed up with it.
For the record, I think Jeremy Clarkson is a reasonably good presenter: he’s funny, boisterous, and clearly has a talent for motoring journalism. David Cameron acknowledged this talent, and was subsequently criticised, as if he had just advocated punching colleagues as an appropriate technique for communication (obviously the Conservative manifesto has not yet been released, so I won’t presume to know Cameron’s opinions on the subject). Anyway, I think Top Gear’s been running stagnant for a while now, but it’s still enjoyable enough.
Furthermore, I reckon Clarkson has been quite unlucky over the past decade, with a Wikipedia ‘controversy’ column which is three times longer than this piece and an array of misreported incidents which have spread like wildfire.
The most infuriating example of this occurred in 2011, when he was said that striking public sector workers should be shot dead “in front of their families”. As the media latched onto this, I was slowly driven insane, because I — unlike half those who reported on it — actually took the time to watch the clip in question. Clarkson had actually been commending the strikes for reducing traffic in London, and then said that because “this is the BBC” he had to offer a balanced viewpoint, thus concluding with an exaggerated, darkly-comic joke. Distasteful, perhaps, but certainly not malicious.
2014 was also a tough year for Clarkson. Someone trawled through archives of binned Top Gear footage until they found a clip in which he sang “eeny, meeny, minie, moe” (I have no idea how I’m meant to spell that phrase), and accidentally mumbled something which potentially sounded like the n-word. Once again, I found myself defending Clarkson, especially following his apology message which showed a broken and exhausted man asking forgiveness for an (inaudible) outtake.
Let’s be clear: I’m not defending everything Clarkson does — some of it is definitely unacceptable — but I also sympathise with him in the face of media-led witch hunts. Certainly the recent growth of comments on the ‘fracas’ shows he’s a popular topic, especially in our clickbait generation of inaccurate headlines and unsubstantiated reporting.
Apart from the media, however, I have another problem with this event. The ‘Bring Back Clarkson’ petition now has over one million signatures (at the time of writing), from supporters who don’t even know the specifics of the case. Over the last few weeks, we have only heard tiny rumours which are drip-fed through the media, and yet more and more people are signing it. The details have now been released, but it had surpassed that mark well before anyone knew the truth, and that angered me. If the same group were called to jury service, surely they wouldn’t support the suspect purely based on his or her courtroom wisecracks?
These same supporters might argue that they are supporting Clarkson purely in his position as a great entertainer. Why have a petition, though? Surely the figures — 350 million views per week worldwide — speak for themselves? Interestingly, a BBC executive apparently compared Clarkson to Jimmy Savile, and although that’s an incredible smear as far as I’m concerned, I’d like to reverse that comparison by pointing out that Savile too was a great entertainer, but a petition to celebrate his life would, I’d hope, be wholly inappropriate. He should be judged on what he did, and not the capacity in which he did it. This idea is perfectly demonstrated by Chris York’s Huffington Post article ‘Man loses job after punching colleague in face’, which perfectly distills the story down to its basics:
I’d like to finish with the story behind the story: the BBC. With its licence fee up for scrutiny in 2016, Broadcasting House is petrified of putting a foot out of place on its tightrope walk to potential oblivion. As Victoria Coren Mitchell explains, a hungry tabloid press (undoubtedly jealous of BBC subsidies) has been waiting to criticise Director General Tony Hall for any outcome of the Clarkson story. Having given him about twenty ‘final chances’ in the past few years, they’ve finally decided to cut him loose. It’s a shame, but I like to think Top Gear will be reinvigorated by the shake-up. If nothing else, rumours suggest Boris Johnson could be a potential replacement, and that sounds brilliant in every way. After all, why have three jobs when you can have four?