It’s a familiar enough cycle by now, of course. In the first place, Jeremy Clarkson says something that, depending on your point of view on the matter, is either easily interpretable as racist or xenophobic or is something that some people choose to interpret as racism or xenophobia. Then comes the inevitable, lengthy newspaper comments section on the subject of whether he actually has said something racist or xenophobic or not, which can often feel as if it is divided not on the lines of whether it was racist or xenophobic or not but whether the writer of such a comment loves Top Gear or not. And finally, there comes an apology that isn’t really an apology and a slap on the wrists from the senior management of the BBC. The world keeps rotating on its axis, and everything returns to normal. Until next time.
But here’s the thing about Jeremy Clarkson. There’s always a next time. After the last time, when he was caught on camera but off-air using the phrase “catch a nigger by his toe” and was warned by the BBC, in not so many words, that there are only so many times that a corporation that has been battered by bad publicity in recent years can continue to defend such a divisive figure, some amongst us might have expected him to pipe down for a while. But no. Cometh the production of a new series of Top Gear, cometh yet another set of allegations made against Clarkson, his fellow presenters, and the production team behind the programme. And this time, it’s Argentina that is angry at the behaviour of a man who seems almost incapable of not keeping his trap shut and just getting on with what he’s paid to do.
For those amongst you that have been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, the latest “Jeremy Clarkson is an overgrown naughty schoolboy” story involves car registration plates. It has been reported that Clarkson pitched up in Argentina for a Top Gear “special” to be set in the country in a Porsche 928 with the registration number of H982 FKL, where the number 982 could be interpreted as a nod to 1982, the year of the Argentinian invasion of the islands and the war the followed it, and where the letters “FKL” could be interpreted as a three letter abbreviation of “Falklands”, where, of course, using the name “Malvinas” is the name that Argentinians themselves give to the islands.
The list of people and countries that Clarkson has dog-whistled his opinions at before is as long as your arm, of course, but, whereas there was a time when he seems to have considered himself to be relatively free to say whatever the hell he wanted to about people from other sides of the world, environmentalists, and anybody else who rattled his little Englander mindset. As the popularity of Top Gear has exploded worldwide, though, Clarkson has found himself increasingly under the spotlight but, while it’s almost certainly true to say that there are now more people than ever out there waiting for him to trip himself up in some way or other, it has come to feel as if he is now going out of his way to be offensive by manufacturing situations in which he can dog-whistle his brand of nastiness whilst being able to throw an affronted face when he is called out on it.
This is what has happened in the case of the Argentina incident. “Thousands chased crew to border. Someone could have been killed. This was not a jolly jape that went awry. For once, we did nothing wrong,” Clarkson has said of the Argentinian registration plate episode, whilst a spokesman for the programme stated that, “We’re pleased the team is safe and would like to thank all of those who have helped. As the executive producer has made clear, the number plate issue is a very unfortunate coincidence.” Well, that’s good, because if ” the number plate issue” really is “a very unfortunate coincidence” (and we can only wonder aloud whether such an “unfortunate coincidence” would have taken place had cars been purchased for a trip to New York with a car with a registration plate containing the numbers “911” and the letters “WTC” in it), then perhaps Clarkson could issue an apology – and not a half-hearted, mumbled one, in the style of an adolescent boy that has just been caught scrumping, which is his usual modus operandum – and everybody could get on with their lives.
This being Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson, though, the likelihood of this happening would appear to be slim to zero. All that has come from Clarkson so far has been a pouty-lipped “mitigation” that “The number plate was a coincidence. When it was pointed out to us, we changed it,” followed by almost inevitable allegations that it is the Argentinians faults for being offended at his arrival in their country. “They threw us out for the political capital. And these war veterans we upset. Mostly they were in their 20s. Do the maths,” he tweeted, before adding that, “We had planned a good ending for the show. But thanks to the government’s foolishness, it’s now even better.” Interpret that, he seems to implying fairly heavily, as you wish.
But questions remain, of course. Even if we’re as generous as anybody of sound mind could be on the subject and go along with the story that this car – along with those being used by the other two presenters of the programme, which have also been suggested to have links to the war of 1982, albeit somewhat more tenuous ones – just turned up with these license plates attached and that the whole thing was all a series of massive coinicidences, are we really supposed to believe that no-one amongst the Top Gear presenters, camera crew or production team realised that this license plate could be considered offensive until they were being pelted with stones by angry Argentinians?
After all, Top Gear was making an episode in Argentina and, for better or for worse, for a British television company to be travelling there to film what is probably its best known programme was always likely to come under close scrutiny by the locals, some (or, indeed, many) of whom still have considerable axes to grind over the events of 1982, as well as the wider issue of the sovereignty of those islands. If the Top Gear production team really was so dense that, during the entire process of buying a second hand car, re-registering it and shipping it across the world, nobody noticed that this car’s registration plate could easily be interpreted as a slight in the country to where it was being delivered, then serious questions need to be asked of those who apparently didn’t notice it.It’s not the first time that this feeble “we didn’t notice” defence has been wheeled out by the corporation in relation to Clarkson, either. Consider this meanly-mouthed “apology” after the “slope” incident:
When we used the word “slope” in the recent Top Gear Burma special it was a light-hearted wordplay joke referencing both the build quality of the bridge and the local Asian man who was crossing it. We 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 and although it might not be widely recognised in the UK, we appreciate that it can be considered offensive to some here and overseas, for example in Australia and the USA. If we had known that at the time we would not have broadcast the word in this context and regret any offence caused.
Alternatively, of course, there is the possibility that the whole thing was set up completely delberately in the hope of angering some people and adding an ending to the programme that was “even better” than that which had been scripted in the first place. And for all the caterwauling of Clarkson himself and the Top Gear production team, it feels as if, in terms of this particular incident, the number of people who believe their version of events is diminishing. How many times can Jeremy Clarkson possibly get himself into a position in which he “accidentally” says something racist or xenophobic and have people continue to believe his version of events? He can certainly be forgiven for thinking that he can get away with it indefinitely. After all, there are plenty of people happy to fight his corner, up to and including the BBC itself, even after Ofcom found that his “slope” comment was a “deliberately used racial term.”
Perhaps the BBC simply doesn’t wish to lose one of its biggest international cash cows. Perhaps they’re worried about the reaction of a very vocal number of people – the sort of people who use the phrase “policitical correctness gone mad” without irony, as if the right of a rich, old, white man to be offensive is somehow a free speech issue that we should all support – if they were to finally admit that this programme and the culture that built up around it is beyond the pale. To sack Clarkson would seem to be attacking the symptom rather than the problem – after all, co-presenter Richard Hammond once said during a broadcast that, “Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.” – and in world less mad than the one that we inhabit in the twenty-first century, this particular boil might have been lanced long ago.
They didn’t, though, and now this well-worn path – Clarkson says something “edgy”, a million clickbait articles in the national press follow, the BBC offers something approaching an apology and offers feeblest punishment imaginable to Clarkson, who then offers a carefully worded statement which offers what could to the casual listener sound like an apology but isn’t really, lather, rinse, repeat – is so embedded that it seems unlikely that much will change from the BBC or Clarkson’s side now. He’s gotten away with it far too many times. And so it is that the weird cultural trope of the likes of old, rich, white men such as Clarkson and his political doppelganger Nigel Farage somehow managing to manufacture themselves a persona that is “anti-establishment” continues. And at this late stage in proceedings there is no outrage at this to be had any more, only a sense of pronounced tiredness at the absolute predictability over this particular shock jock’s latest publicity stunt. In the meantime, perhaps Clarkson, the Top Gear production team and the BBC itself would be best advised to actually consider what people might find offensive and steer clear of using them, rather than repeatedly using them insidiously in their programmes and then insulting all of our intelligence with their subsequent faux apologies.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.