JEREMY Clarkson is no stranger to controversy. In 2003 an all-female team providing subtitles for his highly successful Top Gear programme wrote a damning letter to the BBC’s house magazine, criticising Clarkson’s – and the show’s – misogynist attitude.
“Comment after comment about blokeishness, wives and women,” they wrote, “were finally crowned in one recent edition… which saw three bikini-clad women used to demonstrate the differences between Porsche models”.
It would be nice to think that things have moved on since then, but the complaints received by the BBC following a 2013 advert for Top Gear suggest otherwise. The trailer showed three middle-aged women working in the programme’s wardrobe department, dealing with piles of dirty clothes handed to them by Clarkson and his co-hosts, Richard Hammond and James May. The switchboard received 41 complaints, and derisive comments on Twitter were accompanied by the now-ubiquitous tag #everydaysexism.
Last week Jeremy Clarkson hit the headlines once again, with leaked footage of a Top Gear clip which shows him using ‘the N word’, while reciting the nursery rhyme ‘eeny meeny miney moe’. The footage was never used, and one could argue that such a slip of the tongue is nothing more than mischievous boundary-pushing on Clarkson’s part.
Except that this isn’t a one-off. In 2011 a Top Gear India Christmas special was besieged by complaints about Clarkson’s string of ‘jokes’ about Indian food, clothes, trains, toilets and heritage. In the same year, the BBC were forced to apologise to the Mexican ambassador over comments made by Richard Hammond that Mexican cars reflected national characteristics: namely that they would be “lazy, feckless, flatulent [and] overweight.” In a Burma special episode of Top Gear earlier this year, Clarkson and Hammond referred to a local man as a ‘slope’, resulting in numerous complaints. Executive Producer Andy Wilman released a statement explaining that “the word ‘slope’… was a light-hearted word-play joke”. He went on to say that they “were not aware at the time, and it has subsequently been brought to our attention, that the word ‘slope’ is considered by some to be offensive”.
Such casual racism is hugely damaging to society. In a world where so many people are persecuted, abused, or simply treated differently because of the colour of their skin, it is totally unacceptable to perpetuate stereotypes in the way Clarkson and his fellow presenters do on such a regular basis. For the BBC to countenance their behaviour with nothing more than a rap on the knuckles, and indeed reward it by continuing to employ them, is to be complicit in it.
The BBC should look beyond their viewing figures to the human cost of their decisions: bigotry and racism are not entertainment.
Clare Mackintosh is a freelance feature-writer, columnist and crime novelist, and a former Police Inspector. Follow her on Twitter @claremackint0sh or read her blog at www.claremackintosh.com/blog