Brian Monteith: Jeremy Clarkson row not the problem

Top Gear was a compelling combination for millions of TV viewers. Picture: BBC
Top Gear was a compelling combination for millions of TV viewers. Picture: BBC
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The furore caused by a motor-mouth presenter is made worse by the way the BBC is funded, writes Brian Monteith

I suppose it was only a matter of time that Jeremy Clarkson got into trouble again. It’s the nature of the beast. Entertainment I mean, not Jeremy Clarkson, although many think of him as a boorish beast and would love for the BBC to sack him.

Jeremy Clarkson is confronted by the press. Picture: PA

Jeremy Clarkson is confronted by the press. Picture: PA

The entertainment business has always had its fair share of punch- ups in the background from star entertainers, be it Shakespearean actors in a fit of artistic self-indulgence, football types throwing teacups and punches in the dressing room, or TV presenters who have been in the bar too long on an empty stomach. It happens, and I’ll tell you something for nothing, it will continue to happen even after the last curtain falls, the full-time whistle is blown or the studio lights are switched off.

I recall staying in a hotel in Tobago with a stunning beach-side location that had seen better years and was now trading on its past. Part of its claim to fame was that the hotel bar was the scene of a bar room brawl when Robert Mitchum stayed there in the Fifties for the filming of Heaven knows, Mr Allison. Mitchum had a reputation that went before him and so too does Clarkson, in the latter case for making politically incorrect and injudicious comments and turning offending people into a highly lucrative art form.

What has stirred up the media storm and an avalanche of comment without any knowledge of the facts is that Jeremy Clarkson represents many conflicting stereotypes to different people.

Some, probably the near million who have signed the online petition supporting him, see him as a humorous figure who should not be taken too seriously or a man who represents how they feel about a modern world that has gone all heath and safety, political correct and unwilling to call a spade a spade.

Others believe he represents all that is regrettable about unthinking, uncaring behaviour, the epitome of a loudmouthed bigot.

The truth is probably closer to between the two, as his humorous and well-argued columns in various newspapers often testify.

Even so, for all of that he is still just a television presenter, albeit one who earns a great deal of money for what he does and, in so doing, a great deal more for our public sector broadcaster, the BBC.

The real reason that Clarkson’s behaviour dominates the media is that we in the United Kingdom are all forced to pay for him and are therefore entitled to give off or support him. He is a supercharged turbo-powered figure compared to say, Ant and Dec. He comes with the BBC so long as it employs him whether we like it or not, for we cannot evade the £145.50 licence fee without breaking the law. Clarkson is, therefore, public property far more than any entertainer that appears at The Playhouse, Easter Road or the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

With singers, dancers, footballers and actors we have the choice of falling out of love with our heroes and heroines if they misbehave and can protest by refusing to buy the ticket or pay at the gate. We have power as the consumer. Impresarios, producers and management know this and may not take a risk on promoting a gig with an entertainer who has done something beyond the pale, even if technically he or she has already paid a price through public humiliation or serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. So for those who object to Jeremy Clarkson I say why not demand some real power rather than demand his head?

Why not demand that the BBC loses its funding through the licence fee – a regressive television poll tax if ever there was one – so that it be replaced by a subscription that we can pay and then cancel if the product, or those who deliver its product, fail to meet our standards?

The back catalogue of the BBC is immense and having better access to that alone would be worth a subscription. It would bring much needed self discipline to the broadcaster and reconnect it with the British people after so many failures in standards that we are unable to challenge with anything stronger than writing to our MPs or the BBC Trust.

As a consultant I travel a great deal and never fail to be amazed at how in different continents, the BBC is packaging and hawking British TV shows through subscription cable and satellite services in a manner it does not do at home. In Botswana I could watch not only the BBC’s own latest programmes but Channel 4 and ITV programmes through the South African BBC satellite channel. What’s more there would be commercial adverts between shows. If the BBC can do that internationally why can it not do that here so we are not forced to pay for what we do not like? Then there’s also the fact that since the advent of the internet and its use as a means of sourcing news the BBC has enjoyed a significant commercial advantage that is literally putting newspapers out of business and their employees on the dole queue.

Last month the House of Common’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee published its long-awaited report on a future funding model for the BBC. It rejected the continuation of the licence fee but then came up with a worse solution of having a broadcasting levy, placed on every household. In other words replacing one tax that, if you do not have the means to watch a television show (such as a TV monitor, computer or smart-phone) you can appeal that you do not have to pay – with a new tax, the household broadcasting levy, that you would be forced to pay irrespective.

Thankfully one MP, Philip Davies, dissented but many politicians remain detached from the reality of how television is changing. As The Freedom Association’s “Axe the TV Tax” campaign has pointed out, the trend towards a majority of people abandoning live schedules by switching to TV on demand through i-player systems ensures a fee or levy is becoming outdated.

Clarkson could still misbehave were he broadcasting for ITV, Sky or other commercial channels, but by axing the tax we could at least decide for ourselves if we wish to pay to watch him rather than be taxed when we have turned over or even turned off.

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