A disturbing image haunts my imagination. An image of erstwhile journalist and TV presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, pink, bloated, and naked. He is in a busy street, his face twisted in anguish, his modesty covered only by a thin layer of his own excrement. The same Jeremy Clarkson who recently devoted his Sun newspaper column to the alleged misdeeds of Meghan Markle, imagined her getting her comeuppance by being paraded through the streets naked all the while being pelted with excrement by loyal citizens (like himself, presumably). His commentary has attracted quite a lot of criticism in certain circles over the past week. And that criticism has, in turn, attracted quite a lot of criticism.
Misogyny and hate speech on one side, and freedom of speech on the other. Clarkson in the middle:
“I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level.
“At night, I’m unable to sleep, as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant “Shame!” and throw lumps of excrement at her.”
Reading the indignation that has followed Clarkson’s article, I am reminded of George Orwell’s judgement on Salvador Dali, whom he once famously described as “a gifted draughtsman and a disgusting human being”. And many would agree that part of this could equally apply to Jeremy Clarkson (not the bit about being a gifted draughtsman). But we would have to admit that, even then, opinions vary.
“Freedom of Speech includes the freedom to be shocking – yes, even Jeremy Clarkson”
Thus John McLellan in The Scotsman (27 December), in an impassioned diatribe against “cheek-sucking, nose-in-the-air liberalism”. McLellan careful to separate the man from the freedom. Others, such as Sean O’Grady in the Independent, or Fraser Myers in Spiked (20 December), dwell on the supposition that Clarkson is only joking, of which more later.
There is, it has to be said, one crucial difference between my imaginings and Clarkson’s. Mine make me feel ill. Clarkson’s desire to see Meghan Markle publicly humiliated betrays something quite different – pleasure. Clarkson, lying awake at night and dreaming at the same time, is enjoying his fantasy. A fantasy in which his elaborate tale may reveal his true, inner pervert.
Bring on the defenders of free speech
McLellan asserts “to my mind at least, it’s refreshing to read the views of those who really don’t give a stuff who they upset.”
But Clarkson did give a stuff, and shortly afterwards announced his regret at the offence he had caused. McLellan relates this but does not give his opinion on it. Given what precedes it, however, we can draw the inference that he disapproves of Clarkson’s backtracking.
Fraser Myers, meanwhile, has it that “… free speech rests on our right to express absolutely any idea – even offensive ones. We should have a right to express even hatred of anything and anyone, without the threat of the law or the state preventing us from doing so.”
He then goes on to criticise the expressed opinion of BBC presenter, Chris Packham, for saying,
“If there were any sort of justice there would be laws that would jail him. And shut down the publisher.”
Here, Myers has a point. Pity that he drives his point home by misrepresenting the response of a group of MPs to Clarkson’s remarks.
In his zeal for defending freedom of speech, Myers writes
“MPs were also not joking when they published an astonishingly authoritarian joint letter today, condemning the Sun on Sunday for publishing Clarkson’s article … These MPs finish their letter with the chilling demand for “definitive action… to ensure no article like this is ever published again”
while omitting to point out that those MPs, ‘orchestrated’ by Tory MP, Caroline Nokes, sent their letter not to IPSO, but to the editor of The Sun.
There was, in reality, nothing authoritarian in the response of MPs to the article; it was a ‘what are you going to do about it?’ letter. Because many who are as entitled to freedom of expression as Clarkson, McLellan and Myers may take the view that the Sun should express their awareness of their responsibilities as a media outlet and dump Clarkson altogether.
Thus curtailing Clarkson’s access to mainstream media is not an attack on freedom of speech. It is the withdrawal of a privilege, not a right. And Clarkson has no more right of access to those media than anyone else who has a story to tell, or an opinion to express, or bile to spit.
Myers gives vent to his outrage while misinforming his audience, just as McLellan is very selective about the parts of the story that he chooses to give us his opinion on. As for Clarkson, were The Sun to withdraw his access to that platform, others remain available to him. I, for one, would have absolutely no objection to his being able to email his friends and family with news of whatever disgusting fantasy he comes up with next.
McLellan is disingenuous when he writes of Clarkson and Rod Liddle:
“I suspect the vast majority of their readers are either in tune with, or entertained by, their weekly hyperbolic skewering of political correctness, and those who aren’t will merely be seeking confirmation of a long-established loathing.”
In reality, Clarkson does what he does in order to create a narrative, whether or not his words are to be taken literally. And those who find that Clarkson’s hyperbolic skewering crosses the boundaries of taste and decency need to bite the bullet and join the 20,000 who have complained to the regulator and demanded some action. Not so that the regulator can necessarily bring some sanction to bear on the newspaper or its columnist, but so that the editor of The Sun gets the message that something more than a self-serving apology is needed.
Essentially the problem of freedom of speech is that so many people who find people like Clarkson objectionable keep their disapproval to themselves.
And the problem doesn’t end with The Sun.
Jeremy Clarkson, consummate broadcaster
We need also to consider how Clarkson’s privileged access to the media helps him to attract an audience. It is undoubtedly not on account of his being the has-been of Top Gear. As the face of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” he has access to millions, and thus the issue of the acceptability of his actions must also be confronted by ITV. But, as The Guardian reported last week
“Lygo, the managing director of ITV Studios, told members of the Broadcasting Press Guild: ‘We have no control over what he says. We hire him as a consummate broadcaster of the most famous quiz on television, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’”
This is an outlook that must seem quite alien to one section of the wider community. Public sector employees would be disciplined were they to broadcast material of any kind, say on social media, that their employer thought inappropriate. Not so in Kevin Lygo’s world.
Lygo makes it clear that he does not approve of Clarkson’s comments, but clearly, he has other priorities. Money talks. Clarkson pulls in the audience. And it suits Lygo and the powers that be at ITV to refuse to acknowledge that his ability to pull in an audience at The Sun is linked to his prominence on TV.
ITV is therefore in the same situation as Saville’s enablers at the BBC were a generation ago. And their instinct is the same – to protect ‘the talent’ at all costs. ‘The talent’ is a commodity, and so long as it has market value, the broadcasters will sell it. Regardless of the consequences.
Only the audience has the power to reduce its market value. The broadcaster’s ersatz conscience.
“Clarkson’s ‘cellular level’ hatred of Meghan might sound a bit much, a bit obnoxious, or maybe even a bit creepy. Until you remember it isn’t really real. Clarkson is joking – or at least attempting to. Vulgar, boorish, un-PC humour is kind of his shtick”
Thus Fraser Myers, who actually appears to find one bit ‘really real’ and edits it out of his commentary:
“He said he ‘loathes’ Meghan Markle on a ‘cellular level’ – even more than he hates serial killer Rose West.”
So, what happened to Clarkson’s expressed hatred for Nicola Sturgeon? Airbrushed out. Not funny. And therein lies the problem with the case that Myers tries to present. If Clarkson is joking, where does the funny bit start? We could do with an asterisk in the text to let us know when to start laughing.
But with his “vulgar, boorish, un-PC humour” he is the latest in a long line of English comic talents – a lineage that includes Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson – from what you might call the ‘fun for wife-beaters’ school of comedy (that’s hyperbolic skewering, by the way, in case you didn’t realise).
Clarkson’s are the kind of jokes for which canned laughter was invented.
Were we to try to give some kind of definition to ‘hyperbolic skewering’, it would be something like “using humour to make a serious point”. Quite clever, really. Unfortunately for the consummate broadcaster and his apologists, ‘clever’ is notable by its absence from his original article. Immediately after the excrement paragraph, he goes on to say of Markle’s imagined fate,
“… and everyone who’s my age thinks the same way.”
At which point there becomes something inherently embarrassing about being sixty-two. Something to cringe about. Because the self-appointed spokesperson for the sixty-twos sounds remarkably like the year 5 playground bully he may have liked to have been.
Ultimately, those who would defend his right to free speech including unlimited access to mainstream media, are defending not the consummate broadcaster’s right to shock with thought-provoking comment, but the right to say something manifestly stupid and the duty of everyone else to listen.
Clarkson and the Dali connection
But Clarkson has more in common with Salvador Dali, Orwell’s bête noire, than may be apparent at first sight. Like Clarkson, Dali had a particular fascination with excrement, a fact that drew Orwell’s attention (and disgust). Where they differ is that Dali belongs with that group of controversial artists who present the dilemma of how to appreciate the art of the genius who is also a profoundly unpleasant individual. The controversy over Dali, Wagner and other will go on, but Clarkson is much easier to deal with.
There is undoubtedly more to being a consummate broadcaster than, say, a consummate van driver, but Clarkson’s skills are not unique. Other consummate broadcasters are available, and now would be a good time for Clarkson to take up his rightful place in the lumber room of history. Ant and Dec can take over at Millionaire