TV personality advocates executing strikers… not

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UK broadcasting personality Jeremy Clarkson is paid millions of dollars a year out of the BBC's revenue, which is raised by means of a tax that all owners of TV equipment are required to pay. Wouldn't you agree that he should be fired from his job if he used his privileged position to advocate on nationwide public TV that nurses and teachers on strike should be rounded up and shot in front of their families?

I think I'd be happy to see him fired for that. If he had done it. Over this weekend an extraordinarily stupid manufactured news brouhaha led to a large proportion of the British public believing that he had. But he hadn't. Journalists either don't know how to report speech acts accurately or they aren't trying.

Clarkson is mainly famous for a program called "Top Gear". I've never seen it, but I believe it involves a lot of driving around at high speed in the sort of long, low, sleek vehicles that my delightful partner Barbara used to call penis cars.*

Clarkson has a DVD and a book out as well, and hence had reason to appear on a lightweight current affairs show ("The One Show") talking about this and that, and he was asked what he thought of the major nationwide strike of public-sector workers across the UK last week.

Trying to be droll, he began by insisting that the strike had been wonderful. London traffic flow was light, the airport wasn't thronged, it was easy to get tables in restaurants. Then, having milked that for laughs, he he went into a second spiel, mocking the BBC.

But the BBC expects balance, he said, as if he were facing the unwelcome necessity of having to give the other side of the story. So then he buckled down to a facetious presentation of as extreme an opposite view as you could imagine: they should be shot in front of their families, who do they think they are with their gold-plated pensions, daring to strike, etc.

So he was mocking the BBC's stance on politics. Being supported by public funds, the BBC is supposed to remain unbiased about everything, and to air competing points of view fairly. Listening to the whole segment in context (you can see the video clip on many sites; one of them is this report on an automobile blog), you'd really have to be a moron not to see this.

But morons there were, in abundance, piling on Clarkson and the BBC like the orcs attacking Helm's Deep. I heard a woman on the radio saying, "I'm a nurse, and Jeremy Clarkson threatened to have me killed in front of my children." And so on and so on. The audience at Friday's night's radio program "Any Questions" was baying for Clarkson's blood and booing anyone on the panel who mentioned free speech or the distinction between weak humor and death threats.

It was entirely missed by the majority of the people talking about the issue that not only was he trying to joke around (a point that people generally accepted, though they said he should be fired for such an unpleasant joke), but he was not even pretending to attack the strikers. He was just using an absurdly extreme caricature of a right-wing position as a comedy prop.

If you want to say it was feeble humor in dubious taste, I have no problem with that. But I got a real sense in this affair of three things I do have problems with:

  1. utter inability to grasp that the surrounding linguistic context makes a difference when you're trying to interpret a piece of language and detect irony or other intended properties thereof;
  2. willingness to abandon the notion of free speech rights the moment someone expresses (or is thought to have expressed) an obnoxious view; and
  3. outrage being deliberately manufactured for political or other purposes.

The newspapers were an utter disgrace. The Metro (it is distributed free on the buses here, and I can only say that I think they've got the price exactly right) printed a photo of Clarkson saying what he said, and captioned it "Clarkson on BBC1's The One Show vents his spleen over public sector strikers" as if he had been expressing anger at them, rather than pretending that BBC policies required him to. (Lack of sanity, or lack of intelligence? You decide.)

The labor unions behaved similarly: they grabbed at air time by attacking Clarkson as a surrogate for the current Conservative-dominated government. All sorts of people seized the chance to attack a man who is paid millions to drive fast cars on a TV program and shoot his mouth off on chat shows — they exhibited what you might call celebrity rage.

As usual, I'm on the side of free speech here. I'd probably be defending Clarkson (not with any great enthusiasm) even if he had proposed public executions of strikers, because stupid and cruel views held only by deranged wingnuts need protection too. That's not in conflict with what I said above about how I would be happy enough to see him fired: he has a right to express any view he likes, but once he's expressed an obnoxious view the BBC has every right to decide whether they want to go on paying him millions of dollars to express it on their programs.

For those millions of Britons who continue to want Clarkson fired, I have this to say: Get off your butts and organize a boycott of "Top Gear". If everybody stops watching "Top Gear", he'll be gone in a month. But if you all carry on watching it, then he's a great investment for the BBC, and they shouldn't fire him. It's your choice whether he survives as a broadcasting personality. Stop whining; organize a boycott.

*My friend Victor Steinbok has informed me that "Top Gear", though it does involve a lot of fast driving and clowning around with wheeled vehicles, is not mainly about penis cars. Still, having mentioned them, I simply cannot resist pointing you to the story and brief video here, which pertains to a multiple-car freeway pileup that must surely be the all-time most costly in human history on a per-vehicle basis, almost entirely penis cars: 8 Ferraris, 3 Mercedes-Benzes, a Lamborghini, and two others. It happened in Japan during a high-speed convoy-style drive down to Hiroshima by a group of motoring enthusiasts, a sort of Japanese Hell's Angels club with Italian sports cars instead of Harleys. See it and weep. Some people really do have too much money. —GKP]

[Comments are of course closed. To remind yourself of why, peruse the comments and responses below a post on a similarly controversial topic that I wrote last year when I was younger and less wise: Don't mention coconuts (9 August 2010).]

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