Jeremy Clarkson's remarks about Meghan Markle are a symptom of our 21st century Dark Age – Alastair Stewart
And if Clarkson's own words seem a tad too much or, more accurately, perfectly vile, then so too must his comments in The Sun about Meghan Markle. So what to do with a problem called Jeremy? What will his penance be? Another non-sacking, canned contract, like with the BBC in 2015 after an "unprovoked physical attack" on a Top Gear producer?
Clarkson is a tribute to our own double standards. He is an agent provocateur operating at the same button-pushing pop culture nexus of journalist/broadcaster/entertainer as Boris Johnson. Both survive and thrive on the benefit of the doubt.
In the early noughties, the writing compendiums of Clarkson and Johnson were go-to stocking fillers. While some, then as now, took their musings, ramblings, and outrages seriously, most saw it as a mild wind-up. Their "wit", which delighted millions, merely channelled the unsaid xenophobic and misogynistic views of petty-bourgeois Britain.
If Brexit and the rise of Johnson did not tank that particular innocence, then his tenure in office certainly did. The same people who laughed were the same voters who doomed themselves to our current economic travesty. And while the calculating malice hidden behind Johnson's foppish government was exposed and sent packing, dated dinosaurs like Clarkson remain, existing only to clickbait us into buying him another farm.
And the worst part of it all? He is entertaining. And so is every other shock-jock comedian. The puritans who say they have never laughed at one joke by Clarkson, Frankie Boyle, or any others who exist to push the line, are almost certainly lying. The issue here is Clarkson has said what he said in a mainstream format. Faux witchhunts are only ever instigated after someone publicly oversteps middle-class mores in a way that many are perfectly happy to cackle about in their own homes.
Would we have seen the same reaction if it was said at an Edinburgh Fringe show at 2am? Would we laugh if it was a friend who said it? Treating column spaces as the sacred ground will totally declaw hard-hitting commentary. Clarkson's error was mistaking his writing corner for a sanctum sanctorum. He ignored the intricate web of responsibility that binds journalists, commentators, editors and marketing departments to a highly intelligent, digitally connected audience ready to be outraged.
There’s hypocrisy in the idea that Clarkson's humour is not manifestly represented elsewhere. So far, the former Top Gear presenter has been the subject of more than 17,500 complaints to watchdog IPSO. How does that compare with the viewing figures for Top Gear, The Grand Tour, or his weekly readership? How many people watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Clarkson is not a clear-cut case for a modern-day, cancel-culture drumhead trial. You can ban him from writing, ban him from TV or throw him in prison (as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham suggested), but it does not change the reality that people will still find his routine funny. Clarkson thought, and I imagine his editor probably agreed, that his article was a rollicking read about Harry and Meghan.
As conceited and self-reverential as the Sussexes' six-part documentary is, it is entirely on the money about cultures of hate. Mood-setting journalism can both set the tone, perpetuate an idea or respond to burgeoning notions in the public zeitgeist. That it all becomes an echo chamber, as it did with Markle, is a case and point. In a bid to issue a takedown, Clarkson could not have done more to cement their contention that many in the British media have been waging a vendetta against the Duchess of Sussex, which fuelled unfair public animus.
What to do about such situations is a matter for debate. There will be other comments and other instigators. Those who cry McCarthyism are making a lazy parallel, but there are difficult questions to answer about the potential repercussions and whether an apology is sufficient. Trying to figure out the rules can be complicated; when do satire and parody become insults and cruelty? Misogyny and racism are despicable evils that some may attempt to wrap up within supposedly innocent jokes.
Clarkson's Sun column may have been removed from the website, but it passed numerous checks before publication. Clearly, a conversation needs to be had. Ironically, it is the same one the Sussexes tried to have, even if it has been deplorably packaged in a hamper of ego.
Anyone creating a zero-sum game from freedom of speech and the right not to be offended is missing the middle ground of taste, good humour, decency and wit. When all of these fail in equal measure, and when a ubiquitous hatred for a person blinds you to the limits of decency, then this situation will continue to come about.
Clarkson offered a non-apology, admitting he was "horrified" after "causing so much hurt". He was vague as to whom. It sounded like he meant outraged readers, overlooking once again that the object of his comments is a person who might have something to say about his remarks.
Despite all these complex issues and an expanding toolkit for launching our views into the digital void, you would think the country should be becoming smarter. It feels like we are all happy to revel in our ignorance and outrage, never driving public discourse forward. Clarkson suggested a medieval punishment for Meghan. Certainly, it feels like the Dark Ages now.
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