The saga of Jeremy Clarkson’s “fracas” in a Yorkshire hotel seems to be dying down temporarily no doubt to rise again after the BBC makes its decision. It is important not to prejudge what did or did not happen and wait for an investigation result. That said I am always somewhat dubious about any organisation’s internal disciplinary proceedings as all too often the outcome is decided long before any evidence is even gathered and is only partially related to the incident in question.
Clarkson’s tenure at the BBC and what it says about the BBC is perhaps somewhat more interesting.
Jeremy Clarkson was a motoring journalist on a relatively serious car magazine by the name of Performance Car. He then left to join the deeply dull old BBC Top Gear programme. His contributions were arguably the most interesting but it did not prevent the programme from being scrapped. Incidentally Performance Car later morphed into a sort of almost soft porn magazine complete with adverts for car accessories complete with scantily clad women before dying out itself.
Clarkson then went with a friend to the BBC and proposed a new programme (also called Top Gear) but the similarities between new and old Top Gear are limited.
Clarkson is a no longer really a motoring journalist: even at first he was less specifically a motoring journalist than many. For serious experts on cars a previous generation had LJK Setright who happily quoted literature whilst writing about cars very well (if somewhat pretentiously). The journalists from Performance Car largely moved to a new title called Evo set up by Harrison Metcalfe a wealthy farmer and car enthusiast who was also an extremely good motoring and even motor industry journalist. Metcalfe eventually moved on to a job with Jaguar Land Rover. Currently for serious if fun motoring journalists one has a number mainly online such as Chris Harris (who incidentally is usually to be seen with a copy of the Guardian in his cars).
Clarkson as noted above whatever his talent for writing about cars is more a general amusing polemicist rather than a writer about cars: his Sun and Times columns have little enough to do with cars these days. Equally Top Gear is in many ways no longer a car programme but rather a sit com about three men making car programmes. Clearly cars feature but to regard it, as a car show is a bit like regarding Last of the Summer Wine as a programme about the Yorkshire Dales.
Clarkson is said to be the creative talent behind this outrageously commercially successful show but he is also one of the actors. His character is the posh yet loud mouthed, politically incorrect one: a combination of Compo and Foggy to continue the Last of the Summer Wine analogy.
The question is always to what extent the Clarkson of Top Gear: right wing, politically incorrect etc. is the Clarkson of reality and to what extent the television show requires him to be himself or act other than himself. To an extent one could see him as a bit like Kim Kardashian who appears to be an actress who plays only one person: Kim Kardashian. To what extent the person portrayed in the “reality show” is actually the real person is debatable. With the likes of Sasha Baron Cohen one can see a clear creative talent creating ludicrous spoof people: even when interviewed Cohen usually remains in character. With Clarkson (and Kardashian) it is unclear where the reality ends and the character begins.
The problem is that the character Clarkson plays is in many ways the antithesis of what the BBC is perceived as: too white, posh and middle class certainly but also liberal and intellectual. Clarkson’s character arouses the ire of many liberals with the likes of the Guardianistas hating him and it would seem many in the BBC wishing to see the back of him.
This creates problems for the BBC which have been dwelt on in some detail. Top Gear generates many millions for the BBC: it is by far their most successful export being watched in many different countries. That creates a dilemma for the BBC: Top Gear and Clarkson may be offensive to many a liberal sensibility and may not really be what the BBC sees itself as about but it does generate the money. If they sack Clarkson there is a high chance that their product (Top Gear) will be highly even terminally devalued. There is also the suggestion that Clarkson is considering jumping ship to front a very similar show on another broadcaster.
There is also a further problem which few seem to have picked up on. Clarkson is clearly highly popular within the UK. He (or at least the character he plays) appeals to an upper working and middle class largely male demographic who dislike liberals and political correctness and feel they should be allowed to say a great deal more of what they mean. If the BBC were to get rid of Clarkson that would feed into the standard right wing critique of the BBC that they are a metropolitan elite out of touch with much of the UK yet paid for (very handsomely – Clarkson as well) by a poll tax for non payment of which poor people are routinely sent to gaol.
As such getting rid of Clarkson not only could cost money but could help further increase the claim that the BBC are out of touch and irrelevant and as such should not be allowed to extort the public for money for their own Byzantine empire.
Finally the Clarkson spat presented an excellent distraction from the call by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, for the resignation Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust. Hodge suggested that Fairhead was “Either naive or totally incompetent,” in her role as a non executive director of HSBC and a such should resign from the BBC Trust.
Clarkson then has proved a useful money spinner for the BBC (and clearly himself) and a useful lightening conductor to deflect criticism: whether he now goes may be as much about that as whatever happened in a hotel in Yorkshire.