Jeremy Clarkson, the star presenter fired this week from the globally popular TV show Top Gear, is a jerk. An investigation found he had punched his producer in the face for arranging cold cuts to eat instead of steak and fries (the hotel kitchen had closed), so the insult is more than warranted.
Clarkson’s boorishness, though, is why so many people watch his show. Top Gear — which Clarkson developed, often scripted and co-hosted with two others — made for strangely compelling viewing. It was supposed to be about cars, but was really about playing with toys and doing the kinds of pointless and ridiculous things most grownups stopped when they were teenagers.
This isn’t the first time Clarkson has been in trouble. After apologizing for a co-host calling Mexicans “lazy” on the show, he wrote that the country had no Olympic team “because anyone who can run jump or swim is already across the border.” Last October, a Top Gear television crew was forced to flee Argentina after driving a Porsche with the registration number H982 FKL — which some people suggested could refer to the Malvinas conflict.
He also punched the British journalist Piers Morgan in the head three times at an awards ceremony in 2004 for, as Morgan puts it, publishing compromising pictures of Clarkson “and a lady who wasn’t Mrs. Clarkson.” (“It was, frankly, like being slapped over the face with a wet Cod,” says Morgan.)
But that’s the thing about talented people like Clarkson. On TV, flouting political correctness and behaving badly can be funny; it’s what he’s paid to do. Move to reality, however, and his bullying, foul-mouthed ways are less amusing.
BBC Director General Lord Hall said he had no choice but to let Clarkson go, despite a petition from more than one million Top Gear fans asking for his reinstatement:
“For me a line has been crossed. There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”
I want to agree, but Hall’s claim of equality before the rules is untrue, even hypocritical. Screen talent has always been allowed to abide by different rules. Stars who can command audience numbers are outrageously spoiled, their tantrums absorbed and delinquencies forgiven in ways that would never be allowed to anyone else.
In addition, the BBC profited from Clarkson’s persona, earning 50 million pounds (US$74 million) a year from syndication around the world. It can hardly claim hurt and surprise when his loutishness gets acted out off camera. (Admittedly, punching a co-worker hard enough that he needed treatment is a step up from his previous offences.)
Everyone is equal before the law, though, so Clarkson should be prosecuted for assault. He’ll no doubt confess. It was he who reported himself to BBC managers; he also tried several times to apologize to Oisin Tymon, the producer he pummelled. So he knows what he did.
The BBC, for its part, should discipline him (again), force him to make a public apology, and dock his pay. Clarkson was clearly ready for that. If Tymon didn’t want to work with him anymore, he should have been found a better job and replaced with an even bigger lout than Clarkson (the BBC surely has a few to choose from among its 20,000 full-time staff).
Instead, “Auntie,” as the Brits call their publicly funded broadcaster, will probably try to resurrect Top Gear with new hosts. (Clarkson’s two co-presenters have indicated they may leave with him.) If they do try, it will probably fail, unless they are as effortlessly puerile in the way they talk about cars.
Meanwhile, Clarkson and his fellow Top Gear presenter are likely to find wide open doors if they want to continue their show, under a different name, at another TV channel. The entertainment world, after all, isn’t fair — which is precisely why it’s home to quite a number of highly paid jerks.