The culture war over Clarkson

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Top Gear presenter is now a potent symbol in the battle against overweening interference in how we live and think.

The BBC announced yesterday that it has suspended Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson over a ‘fracas’ with a producer. Rumours emerged that Clarkson had thrown a punch over an argument over catering, or the lack of it, last week, but the BBC only acted yesterday. The facts of the incident will no doubt emerge in due course. What is clear is that a bog-standard workplace disagreement has been inflated into another battle in the culture wars.

Last night, an online petition was started calling for the BBC to reinstate Clarkson. At the time of publishing this comment, around 10am, the petition had already attracted 250,000 signatories. Why would the future employment status of an obstreperous presenter on a mildly amusing TV car show attract so much attention?

Well, Top Gear is very popular. It is BBC2’s most popular show, regularly attracting five million viewers (about two million more than the next most popular show on the channel), it is endlessly repeated on digital channel Dave, and Guinness announced in 2013 that Top Gear is the most watched factual programme on the planet. The first episode of the current series was simultaneously broadcast in 50 countries.

Yet there would be nothing like this public reaction if Clarkson’s co-presenters, Richard Hammond and James May, had decided to punch someone. Clarkson has become a lightning rod for those who believe that a narrow political class and mainstream media are working incessantly to reduce our freedom to choose how we live. The fact that he’s constantly in trouble for saying mildly un-PC things, usually very obviously in jest, has enhanced that reputation. For all the people who want to smoke, drink, drive a bit too fast, say what they think without minding their language and are exasperated by the authoritarianism of many environmentalists, Clarkson is one of the few stars who kicks against the offence-phobic Beeb.

The fact that Clarkson’s views are relatively mild-mannered – by Fox News standards, he’s a bedwetting liberal – and often expressed in a childish manner simply confirms him as the standard bearer for the frustrated ‘down with this sort of thing’ bloke. He’s Nigel Farage in a Mercedes. And his haters despise him for much the same reasons they despise Farage – as the symbol of the fact that the smouldering embers of old-fashioned, masculine, conservative beliefs haven’t yet been stamped out.

There’s little need to shed a tear for Clarkson; he’ll carry on making a mint whatever happens to Top Gear.But he’s become an unlikely hero for free speech in a stiflingly conformist age. If those managers within Britain’s main public broadcaster do finally get the chance to ditch Clarkson it will be a horrible indication that the arena of acceptable public discourse has got even narrower.

About me

I'm a writer and author on a wide range of issues. I'm the former deputy editor of the online magazine spiked and I currently work at the Institute of Ideas. I'm the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder (Imprint Academic, 2011).