‘Speedophile’ panic

The critics who took potshots at Top Gear following Richard Hammond's accident are crashing bores.

Steve Bremner

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Bruce Springsteen once metaphorically described cars as ‘suicide machines’ in that old anthem Born to Run. To judge by the reaction of British commentators to the accident involving Richard Hammond, a presenter on the popular BBC TV programme Top Gear, Springsteen was not alone in his assessment.

Hammond’s dramatic accident, from which he is still recovering, occurred when the jet-powered drag racer he was driving crashed at over 300mph. Some commentators now seem really to believe that cars are everyday ‘suicide machines’ and that, furthermore, their drivers are the equivalent of child molesters or suicide bombers.

Take Johann Hari of the Independent, for example. He calls the fans of Top Gear ‘speedophiles’, neatly lumping child abusers with fans of a TV show about cars. Top Gear’s main presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, is, in Hari’s eyes, chief ‘speedophile’; Clarkson has apparently ‘vastly increased the number of people like his mate Hammond lying brain-damaged or broken in a hospital bed’ (1). No evidence is presented to support such a claim, but when you’re on a mission to stop ‘speedophilia’, who needs evidence?

Clarkson, who is well known for taking on the road safety lobby in a rather truculent and teenage way, has created a network of ‘groupies’ and ‘acolytes’ whose need for the adrenalin rush of speed has led to ‘a blood-sacrifice on our roads that tops even the hellish death toll jihadists have so far inflicted on us’, says Hari. So ‘Mullah’ Clarkson, as he calls him, is little better than the 7/7 suicide bombers.

Hari’s real contempt is reserved for the British public: ‘[T]hese Top Gear toffs posing as Ordinary Blokes know the vast majority of their viewers will speed on ordinary roads, where they will smack into ordinary people.’ Here the viewing public are reduced to unthinking Mr Toads who will leap behind the wheel, drive their cars, and ‘kill a child’ all because they have sat down with a cup of tea to watch a bit of light entertainment but ended up being seduced by ‘Mullah’ Clarkson.

Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday is also appalled. She characterises Top Gear as a ‘paean to speed, risk and wanton destruction’ (2). Clarkson apparently thrills viewers with his ‘relentless technophilia and derision for anything that might be considered political correctness’. (In this case, technophilia is presumably a close relation of speedophilia.)

Smith goes so far as to blame Top Gear, rather madly, for failing to control the ‘destructive impulses’ of a whole section of the public. All young men are apparently prone to the same ‘destructive impulses’ that lead some to become ‘suicide bombers’. These ‘destructive impulses’, Smith claims, were once controlled by social initiation rituals. They have now disappeared, she says, and young men are driving too fast, or even becoming suicide bombers, because they are not being reined in at an early age. She implies, by sleight of hand, that Top Gear is effectively condoning such bad, even violent behaviour.

Christine Odone, writing in the Observer, also worries about the danger that Top Gear’s celebration of speed poses to young men. She argues that in today’s social climate, in which risk and danger are frowned upon, ‘The car (or the knife or the gun) takes on an ever greater significance as one of the few remaining expressions of masculinity’ (3). Here, we have an explicit bracketing of murder weapons with modes of transport.

Such was the rush for TV writers and columnists to bemoan Top Gear after Hammond’s accident that there was serious danger of a multi-critic pile-up. While the Guardian’s Mark Lawson was claiming that ‘a television show that advertises the thrill of driving at four times the national speed limit might have a significant influence on the everyday actions of its viewers,’ (4) Richard Williams argued that the celebration of speed and the beautiful cars that can achieve it is a ‘danger to the human race as a whole, and to its habitat’ (5). On Comment Is Free, Sam Wollaston suggested that in a society where ‘people do actually care about the future of the planet….Top Gear feels not just out of date, but wrong’ (6).

As all these critics denounced Top Gear for creating carnage on our roads, they failed to explain one simple statistic: that the numbers of people killed or injured on the roads has continued to fall, despite increased car ownership, and despite the rising popularity of Top Gear.

Why did a TV show get the blame for everything from speeding drivers to failing to help control the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to global warming? For many commentators, Top Gear provokes an automatic expression of loathing as it celebrates many of the things that they detest about modern society: conspicuous consumption, technology, individual choice, risk taking, and an unwillingness to bow to the health and safety culture. Not only that, but as a TV programme it is imbued with an almost mystical power in the eyes of these cultural commentators. The show’s biggest crime is that it is very popular, apparently undermining all the ‘correct’ messages the public are getting elsewhere.

In their various expressions of barely concealed contempt for Top Gear’s viewers, these critics fail to recognise that most viewers see the programme as a bit of fun – and will see these critics for the killjoys that they are. The critics cannot even bring themselves to acknowledge that speed is an enthralling and joyous sensation that helps people feel liberated from the constraints of the everyday and the mundane. By casting peoples’ desires to experience such sensations as illegitimate, even when lived vicariously through the antics of TV presenters, many commentators are essentially stigmatising a vast swathe of our society.

Ironically, Stephen Ladyman, the current road safety minister, was one of the few commentators to defend Hammond and Top Gear, arguing that Hammond ‘is an adventurer and he was doing something that he wanted to do and enjoyed doing. I think it would be really sad if a real tragedy like this one was used to attack an entertainment’ (7). From a government that has spent so much time stopping people doing what they want to do, and enjoy doing, this is a bit rich – but the sentiment is the right one.

Let us celebrate those who are still prepared to adventure and take a few risks – and ignore those who believe a TV programme is the root of all modern evils and that the public are greedy, gullible road hogs.

(1) ‘It’s time to send Clarkson to the scrapyard’, Johann Hari, Independent, 25 September 2006

(2) ‘Call me serious, call me gay if you must, but Top Gear stinks’, Joan Smith, Independent on Sunday, 24 September 2006

(3) ‘Cocooned by safety, we yearn for speed’, Christine Odone, Observer, 24 September 2006

(4) ‘Car-crash television’, Mark Lawson, Guardian, 22 September 2006

(5) ‘The need for speed’, Richard Williams, Comment is Free, 21 September 2006

(6) ‘Speed Cameras’, Sam Wollaston, Guardian, 21 September 2006

(7) ‘Road safety minister backs Top Gear daredevils’, The Times (London), 24 September 2006

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