If You Ask Me May 2015

Out of gear

The role of public broadcasters

I have never understood the appeal of Jeremy Clarkson, the “star” of BBC television’s Top Gear programme on everything automotive. He has always appeared to me to be an arrogant boor, who happens also to be a particularly bad television presenter.

His vapid comments and couched inflections, in addition to his sometimes dubious remarks, have always struck me as questionable. That he should be paid an obscene amount of money to boot was also a puzzle: how could anyone justify such payment for boys playing with toys?

Public debate

It has been reported that more than a million people have signed a petition deploring Clarkson’s suspension from the programme—after he verbally and physically abused a producer—and demanding his reinstatement. What does that tell us about the state of the UK or, at any rate, about the sort of people who habitually watch Top Gear? Surely we are not a nation of philistines and bovver boys?

Why there is such a fuss in the UK right now about his subsequent dismissal from the programme is quite beyond me. Aside from the latest incident, he has consistently over-stepped the rules for presenters: using the N-word and making other racist slurs.

And, I repeat, he is such a dreadful presenter: the Max Bygraves of automotive journalism. On the scale of irritation, he ranks right up there with the appalling Richard Quest: both individuals propel me to the remote to change channels or switch off the TV.

When all around the world people are living in fear for their lives, when women and children are being raped and killed in the name of something utterly godless, when hostages are being beheaded or set alight by the barbarians who call themselves Islamic State, some people in the UK are howling about injustice over the departure of a man who has spent his career essentially demonstrating what penis envy is all about.

The decision to sack Clarkson could not have been an easy one for BBC Director-General Tony Hall, Lord Hall of Birkenhead. But he really didn’t have a choice if he was to stay true to his responsibilities to uphold the standards of the corporation. As he himself put it: “A line has been crossed”.

Serving the state

Public broadcasting is always something of a challenge. The BBC and its Japanese equivalent, NHK, both exist by government fiat and both are funded (at least theoretically) by the viewership they serve.

In the case of the UK, holding a licence is a legal requirement, and there are quite severe penalties for those who do not comply.

In Japan, too, it is necessary to pay a monthly fee to receive the broadcasts, though there appears to be a far less stringent control on those who demur.

Nonetheless, NHK is still criticised by the public when they consider NHK has neglected its duty or has transgressed. Recently, the broadcaster has been embroiled in a scandal over allegations that the producers of social affairs programme Close-up Gendai had asked someone to pose as a broker involved in a fraud scheme. NHK is reputedly conducting an internal investigation into the allegations.

The Clarkson fiasco is hardly the first controversy the BBC has faced, and it will no doubt not be the last.

In the early 1970s, as a BBC One announcer, I recall reading a public apology to Prime Minister Harold Wilson KG OBE, who had taken exception to a programme titled Yesterday’s Men. His complaint resulted in the BBC being ordered to make the apology which I had to read live immediately ahead of the Nine O’Clock News. Given the importance of the announcement’s accuracy, I never understood why we were not allowed to prerecord it; perhaps that was part of the legal agreement.

Public broadcasters are in the mire of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Not only is it not possible to please all of the people all of the time; it is equally impossible to please most of them most of the time.

For the BBC, the dilemma now is whether to try to save the programme without the involvement of its “star” presenter.