LONDON, ENGLAND--When is a “final warning” not likely to mean what it says? Let’s assume the person warned is Jeremy Clarkson, the host of a hugely popular international television show, in this case the BBC’s Top Gear, and he repeatedly and defiantly steps over the network’s lines in the sand with offensive behavior and remarks, including his most recent choice to punch a BBC producer over a catering problem.
He gets fired, right? Not so fast: the show is shown in 214 countries and territories worldwide with an audience estimated at 350 million. According to the British press, it makes the BBC more than $220 million annually, and without Clarkson it’s like, well, The Daily Show without Jon Stewart. So what’s likely is a face-saving suspension with pay, then back to business as usual. Have you heard the phrase "too big to fail"?
As I write this in London, the papers are full of Clarkson, with the Guardian writing that he had “brushed off” the BBC’s decision to suspend him and cancel a few broadcasts of the show. “So far, Clarkson’s response has been to brazen out the controversy,” the paper said. He said he was “having a nice cold pint and waiting for this to blow over,” then retweeted a message from a Top Gear fan asking, “Can’t this be resolved without making the fans suffer.”
Maybe Clarkson should have thought of the fans before he went berserk. Clarkson reportedly "snapped" when a catering truck wasn't available at the end of a day's shooting, and took it out on BBC producer Oison Tymon. (Clarkson later said he didn’t throw a punch, but instead there was some “handbags and pushing.”) But this was hardly an isolated incident. You may remember Tesla suing Top Gear for libel, but nobody got slugged in that incident and the TV show was unscathed. Here are a few of Clarkson’s other greatest hits:
Racism and Xenophobia. In 2010, the show apologized to the Mexican ambassador after producer Richard Hammond said that Mexican cars are likely to be like the country itself: " lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus..." In 2011, Clarkson described a car fitted with a toilet as perfect for India because “everyone who comes here gets the trots.” In 2014, he reportedly used the “N” word, and was ruled by BBC to have breached broadcasting regulations for using the word “slope” to describe Asians. The show also managed at some point to insult the entire nation of Argentina by driving a car down there with a license plate that reportedly referred to the Falklands War.
Violence. On a recent awards show, he also attacked TV host Piers Morgan, who tweeted, “My scarred right temple is open to lucrative exclusive offers to tell its story of a ‘fracas’ with @JeremyClarkson.” Clarkson said on TV, “I punched him. It’s the first time I hit anybody, ever….I am ashamed of it, I make no bones about it.”
Homophobia. Clarkson described a Jaguar as "very fast and very, very loud. And then in the corners it will get its tail out more readily than George Michael."
Property Destruction. In 2003, he had to apologize to a local council after testing a Toyota by ramming it into a publicly owned tree.
An online petition, circulated on a right-wing blog called Guido Fawkes, demands that Clarkson have the “freedom to fracas” and be reinstated. It’s gained more than 500,000 signatures. The hashtag is #BringBackClarkson.
This whole incident is reminiscent of many, many sad media “controversies." While it should be straightforward that a employee who brazenly breaks the rules gets suspended or fired, in fact there’s an invisible Teflon curtain that protects really popular celebrities. After Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, rabid fans put up a big billboard proclaiming “409 Wins,” as if that was the thing that mattered—not the coach’s failure to act to protect the kids.
Who can forget Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s attack on his own fiancé in an Atlantic City casino elevator (described as a “very minor physical altercation” by his attorney)? Football stars are above mere mortals, too, and the fans were outraged—by the fact he was punished. Rice was “indefinitely suspended,” then reinstated after a couple of months. At least he was publicly remorseful, something Clarkson apparently isn’t. He’s said to be “intensely relaxed” about the whole thing.
Football player Michael Vick’s career was interrupted for two years beginning in 2007 because of dog fighting, but he recovered just fine. He went to jail, but then signed a six-year, $100 million contract with the Eagles in 2011.
There’s some parallel here to the Brian Williams controversy, but in the newscaster’s case his credibility was his stock in trade. In Clarkson’s case, his popularity is based on his being “outrageous,” so ultimately when he behaves badly his brand is intact. It’s why rappers can go to jail and not lose their careers. Trust me, we haven’t seen the last of Jeremy Clarkson. Even if in the unlikely event he’s bounced off Top Gear, some other network will sign him up. Here's some BBC video on the whole sordid affair:
Editor's note: The sentence that described Mexican cars was updated to clarify that the quote is attributed to Mr. Hammond, a producer of Top Gear.