Stephen McGinty: Jeremy Clarkson – joker or jackass?

Jeremy Clarkson denies doing anything wrong. Picture: Getty

Jeremy Clarkson denies doing anything wrong. Picture: Getty

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Anyone other than Jeremy Clarkson would have had their P45 a long time ago. But his latest scrape in Argentina could be testing the public’s patience to destruction, says Stephen McGinty

Is Jeremy Clarkson too big to sack? As a result of the financial crisis we learned that certain companies could not be allowed to collapse, that the consequence would have been too great for the British public. If RBS had been a much smaller firm, it would have closed up shop, but because of its massive size, the number of people employed and the fact that it was linked to so many other companies and members of the public, it was imperative that the government save it. I understand this, I’m sure you do too: the idea of going to the cash machine and none of your money coming out, a scene replicated for potentially millions of customers and thousands of businesses, would have been catastrophic.

So instead of collapsing, the government agreed to pump in billions of pounds. It would not have done so for a manufacturing company, a knitwear firm or a car plant. Maybe in the 1970s, but not now. There is a point at which size does matter. It is the reason why the Inland Revenue will pursue and bully small companies for tax, but will take massive companies out to lunch and come to agreement whereby they egregiously accept whatever the largest companies consent to pay. Often they’ll even pay for the lunch.

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We see this replicated across the board in business, where there is one warmly feathered rule for management and executives and another worn and rusty rod for staff on the shop floor. No-one says it is fair, because it’s not, but nobody believes we live in a fair world. We may aspire to do so, but it’s a goal we’ll never reach. So when the BBC was required to lose a layer of executives, a number were offered lucrative, enhanced deals in order to depart. These deals were not, of course, available to those journalists or programme-makers lower down the corporate ladder who were also asked to walk the plank. It’s just how business is done.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at Jeremy Clarkson and ask if it is in any way conceivable that he will be treated like an ordinary member of the BBC staff.

The answer is no, simply because he is not an ordinary member of the BBC staff, a diligent worker who comes in, does his or her best, and then goes home at the end of their shift. Their contribution is quantifiable by their salary and pension contributions, but Clarkson has done so much more – he has helped create one of the BBC’s most successful programmes, which is exported to dozens of countries and which earns the corporation around £15 million per year.

When it was revealed that he had been filmed jokingly saying – or, he claims, attempting unsuccessfully to avoid saying – the word “n*****”, he was able to escape the sack because executives calculated the cost of doing so. The director general, Tony Hall, and Danny Cohen, head of television, would have thought about the potential drop in audience ratings and the knock-on effect of overseas sales that would most likely result from his departure from Top Gear, and decided that his sacking would cost too much. It would not only hurt Clarkson, it would hurt the BBC, and it would hurt them.

However, when a BBC DJ accidentally played an 82-year-old recording of The Sun Has Got His Hat On in which the N-word was audible, his offer of an on-air apology was rejected and instead he lost his job. Why? Because it made the BBC look like it took these matters seriously, which of course they do, but it also allowed them to do so at little personal cost. Had you ever heard of 67-year-old David Lowe from BBC Radio Devon? No.

I’m not saying that Jeremy Clarkson should be sacked over the recent furore in Argentina as it currently stands, but if I was the director general I would insist on getting to the bottom of the current licence plate issue, just to be sure. A spokesman recently said they would ask the Top Gear crew about the registration but “not in an investigative way.”

I don’t think that is good enough and neither does the Labour MP Jim Sheridan who this week said: “If the BBC is involved in a cover-up to protect this, it’s unforgivable. If this was an ordinary employee they would be sacked.”

In case you missed last week’s news, Jeremy Clarkson, James May, Richard Hammond and the entire production crew were run out of Argentina after a squad of men said to be veterans of the 1982 Argentine war picketed the crew’s hotel. A member of the production team was hit about the head and Clarkson admitted they feared for their lives. A bone of contention was said to be the licence plate on Clarkson’s car, a Porsche 928 with the licence plate H982 FKL.

Was this a jibe at the 1982 war in which 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers lost their lives? The Argentines appeared to think so.

The standard line from Top Gear is that this was an honest mistake. A complete coincidence. Clarkson tweeted: “This is not a jolly jape that went wrong. For once, we did nothing wrong.”

This week the Daily Mirror reported that the car salesman who sold the crew the Porsche had said he couldn’t talk to the press. Yet what is curious is that when the car was abandoned, the BBC crew had already switched the plates and replaced them with the car’s old plates, H1 VAE, which is how it was registered for a three-year period before 2001. I would ask why it was deemed necessary for the team to travel with a back-up. Curiously, an Argentine judge is now looking into the matter as swapping plates is a criminal offence in his country, just as it would be back in Britain.

Still, I’d like to believe that Clarkson would not do such a thing. Like many petrolheads, he has a great respect for the armed forces and a few years ago he made a quite brilliant and moving documentary about the Victoria Cross which his father-in-law earned during the Second World War but never spoke about. Top Gear likes its boyish humour so the news that they also had a couple of licence plates that spell out “BE11 END” is quite within their purview. It is quite another thing, however, to use dead soldiers to provoke a snigger.

The Falklands War was brutal, bloody and involved hand-to-hand combat and a bayonet charge. It was also just over 30 years ago and hasn’t yet been wrapped in that protective patina of history which makes gags about the Germans and the Second World War broadly acceptable today.

I can’t believe that Clarkson and his producers would have thought the average member of the British public would tolerate making a sly dig at the war. They’d laugh along with jokes about “slopes” in Asia and “dead prostitutes” dumped in the back of trucker’s cabins, but not at dead British and Argentine soldiers.

However, if this was not an unfortunate coincidence, I would argue that whoever approved such a plan should be sacked immediately. Maybe I’m wrong, but I do feel that the Argentinian fiasco has the feel of a tipping point for Jeremy Clarkson. He and the Top Gear team may well be innocent parties and the victims of a twisted political manipulation by local Argentinian politicians, but there will be people who will view their dishevelled exit from the country as punishment for past sins. Clarkson may well be running out of road.

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