It’s Jeremy Clarkson’s fans they really fear

Clarkson’s comments are considered dangerous because his audience is presumed to be a bunch of thicko automatons.

Rob Lyons

Topics Free Speech

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Spot the remarks that caused a storm of protest.

‘Frankly, I would have them shot. I would have them taken outside and executed in front of their families.’ (Jeremy Clarkson, BBC1’s The One Show, talking about striking public-sector workers.)

‘I wish he’d been killed in that crash. I wish he’d been killed and decapitated. And I wish the next series of Top Gear had been presented by Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond’s severed head on a stick.’ (Stewart Lee, talking on stage in 2009 about a near-fatal accident Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond had suffered while filming.)

Jeremy Clarkson probably doesn’t think much of people striking over having their pension rights cut. However, his comments were really part of a joke about BBC impartiality, not about strikers. No matter how much certain kinds of people may irritate Clarkson, it is hard to believe he actually wants anybody to be taken outside and shot for real. That’s Clarkson’s schtick: he’s a grumpy old man railing against the world one or two notches louder than you’re supposed to. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it just comes across like a lazy tirade.

Stewart Lee ‘s comments were really a dig at the kind of joke dished out regularly by Clarkson and his chums. His routine continues: ‘It’s just a joke, like on Top Gear. So when I said I wished Richard Hammond had been killed and decapitated, like when they do their jokes on Top Gear, it’s just a joke.’ Though Lee is too good a comedian to miss an opportunity for having a go anyhow. ‘But coincidentally… as well as it being a joke, it’s also what I wished had happened.’ Lee’s recent material is like a mirror image of Clarkson’s and, like Clarkson’s output, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it just comes across like a lazy tirade.

The humour comes in saying the thing you’re not supposed to say. But while Lee’s remarks warranted a shock-horror newspaper story or two, it is Clarkson that has attracted a shitstorm of complaints. Admittedly, Clarkson’s comments were made on a primetime family show. What is acceptable on BBC2 at 8pm on Top Gear isn’t, it seems, acceptable an hour earlier on the more family-oriented channel, BBC1.

However, it’s really hard to believe that over 20,000 people saw the show, watched Clarkson make his comments in context, and then saw fit to complain about them. More likely, this was a piece of conscious offence-taking based on reporting of the incident. The default position in response to disagreeable comments today is to resort to manufactured outrage rather than confronting the argument. One irony was listening to the leader of the public-sector trade union, Unison, demanding that Clarkson be summarily sacked. Whatever happened to workers’ rights, brother?

Another irony is that it is this politically correct outlook of speech codes and offence-taking that is the midwife of Clarkson’s stellar success in recent years. How else to explain how a mildly amusing TV car-show presenter with bad hair became a television and publishing superstar? All he has to do is act as a spokesman for everyone annoyed by the real and perceived petty restrictions on our freedom driven by the new illiberal liberalism and he has a guaranteed audience. Really, organisations like Unison shouldn’t demand his head, they should demand a cut of his earnings. (A variety of trade unions, quangos and campaigning groups might also consider sticking an invoice in the post to Larry David and Ricky Gervais, too.)

Whether you like Jeremy Clarkson and Stewart Lee is a matter of taste. (I like them both, but rather less than I used to.) The real difference, the real cause of the outrage about Clarkson, is that it is assumed that his audience is too thick, too Neanderthal to get that he doesn’t really mean it. So stupid are his fans deemed, in fact, that some commentators must have expected bands of Clarksonists to go out marauding the next day and, deprived of guns and ammunition, start spitting on strikers in contempt. Clarkson’s followers are believed to be as devoted and literal as some of the more fervent disciples of an earlier JC.

Stewart Lee’s liberal audience, on the other hand, is assumed to be educated and cultured; they ‘get’ irony. Where Clarkson is a thug and a bully, Lee – and other liberal comedians like him who indulge in ‘black’ humour – are deemed to be edgy. That’s no reflection of reality, however; that’s just liberal self-congratulation, a censorious version of masturbation.

I wish all those so-called liberal wankers would die horribly in a car crash. Ha, only joking. Or am I? Yeah, I am.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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