On Top Gear, aired 6th February, Jeremy Clarkson made one of his deliberate errors in order to annoy a minority. Now, if he can get away with slanders about whole countries (France, Albania, Mexico etc) he’s sure as hell not going to lose any sleep over “jokes” about killing cyclists who “don’t pay road tax”. In fact, he wants cyclists to rant and rave about his loopy libertarian tosh. Ranting and raving equals higher viewing figures, and more dosh for him.
While Ross and Brand can be jettisoned by the BBC when they’re offensive, Clarkson is too important to the corporation. Top Gear is one of BBC Worldwide’s biggest grossing properties.
Now, Clarkson is a professional buffoon, a controversialist, a comedian, not to be taken seriously. But many petrolheads do take him seriously. When he jests about running over cyclists, a goodly proportion of his audience absorb such vitriol and this can influence their driving, paying less regard to those not propelling heavy steel boxes along highways paid for by all.
Clarkson has form on believing ‘road tax’ pays for roads. He’s often touched on the subject in his columns for the Sunday Times:
“Trespassers in the motorcars domain, [cyclists] do not pay road tax and therefore have no right to be on the road, some of them even believe they are going fast enough to not be an obstruction. Run them down to prove them wrong.”
He also jokes that cyclists are paupers and that it’s right and proper to run them down:
“Some people, usually on bicycles, bang on your roof as you go by and say they find your conspicuous consumption offensive. What I want to do at times like this is bang on their cycling helmets and say I find their poverty offensive. But I’m made from stronger stuff so I turn the other cheek and run them down.”
After the 7/7 bombings got more people on bikes, Clarkson wrote:
“Handy hints to those setting out on a bike for the first time…Do not cruise through red lights. Because if I’m coming the other way, I will run you down, for fun…Do not pull up at junctions in front of a line of traffic. Because if I’m behind you, I will set off at normal speed and you will be crushed under my wheels.”
All knock-about stuff and we know he doesn’t mean it. “Come on, it’s just a joke,” is the standard riposte, from the BBC and from those who believe he’s harmless.
He’s funny, but is he harmless?
Stand-up comic Stewart Lee has a 15-minute routine digging in to the harmless humour of Clarkson:
“[Clarkson] is either an idiot, who actually believes all the badly researched, lying, offensive sh*t he says, or he’s a genius, who’s worked out exactly the most accurate way to annoy me.”
Lee points out that Clarkson’s gibes are often callous and bullying.
And Lee isn’t the only comic to think Clarkson is less than funny. Steve Coogan, who has been a guest on Top Gear and was once a fan of the show, believes Clarkson’s stereotyping is now beyond a joke.
So, should cyclists complain to the BBC about Clarkson? It’s a tough call. On the one hand, his paymasters ought to be told his oafish offensiveness could lead to real-life endangerment of cyclists; but on the other hand you know that shock-jocks thrive on complaints. Indeed, if enough complaints are received that gives Clarkson another opportunity to joke about “road tax refuseniks” (even though he well knows that ‘road tax’ was abolished in 1937).
Clarkson has a thick skin. This is the man who thinks 3200 road deaths a year is a price well worth paying for mass motoring:
“Then there’s the PR issue. We need to get the message across that 3,200 deaths a year is tragic but not excessive. With 30 million vehicles on the roads it’s nothing short of a bloody miracle.”
He’s also not bothered about accuracy. He’s a joker, he’s not reading the news:
“When I get a letter from a reader saying I’ve made a factual error my first reaction is rage…And it’s a bit of a bubble burster when someone points out that I haven’t checked my facts. That’s like strutting around with a telltale wet patch on the front of your trousers. Because in the big scheme of things, when I make a mistake, especially one I’ve made on purpose, the world keeps on turning.”
Complaints are his oxygen. There’s little point complaining about Clarkson. He’s not fussed about facts, or whether his trollish views are believed by stupid viewers and readers. Complaints equal ker-ching.
Ignoring him is hard but here’s what he says about politicians. Replace ‘leaders’ with ‘Clarkson’.
“The best thing we can do is treat our leaders as bluebottles. There’s no point waving our arms about and getting agitated because it’ll make no difference. They will continue to buzz about being annoying.”
Whether we complain or not (UPDATE – see below for Top Gear producer’s answer to those who complained), Clarkson will continue to be mock offensive. But check out who he targets and see him for the playground bully that he is.
He vents his spleen on soft targets. He’s never written anything deeply offensive about the religious texts or founder of a certain Arabian religion. That would be reprehensible and truly controversial but Clarkson doesn’t have the balls to be provocative about a religion that has an extreme, unrepresentative element who would kill him. Funny that.
Richard Hammond: You know Breakfast News on the television?
Jeremy Clarkson: No?
Hammond: Come on, you must? Earlier this week they were running this story about cyclists wearing videos on their crash helmets so they can video examples of road rage and people cutting them up on their bikes
Clarkson: Yes, but cyclists deserve it
Hammond You can’t say that
Clarkson: They do deserve it. Just the other week, no honestly, there I am sitting in a traffic jam in London and a Frenchman, he was, tried to cycle between the pavement and my car, and after he’d removed most of the paint with that brake handle thing he came round to the driver’s door to tell me off in that silly accent French people have.
Hammond: A French accent?
Clarkson: Yes, that. And I said to him, ‘Listen if you just work harder you can have a car’.
Hammond: You see? You see you are exactly the reason why I want a camera on my bicycle helmet when I cycle
Hammond: So when idiots like you get out of their car having cut me up…
Clarkson: Who pays the road tax?
Clarkson: You see I don’t mind if cyclists want to come on the road with their silly Victorian distractions I am not bothered, OK, but they must behave themselves
Hammond: There are a few militant cyclists I’ll agree
Clarkson: But you are are one of them
Hammond: I am not I am not a militant cyclist…
Clarkson: On a bicycle you are a peach. You are a peach most of the time. You are a big peach.
Hammond: You are just another fat car in his Mercedes who has a pop at me for riding his bike to work
BBC producer replies to those folks who complained about Clarkson’s ‘road tax’ gibe
Thank you for your feedback about Top Gear broadcast on 6 February 2011. Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying.
Jeremy was singling out what he sees as aggressive cyclists, like the one who scraped his car. I don’t think anyone can deny that, as with motorists, there are cyclists out there whose road behaviour is hardly ideal. Jeremy made it clear that in his view cyclists are free to use the roads as long as they behave themselves. Whilst he’d clearly prefer them to defer to motorists, I think his comments stop a long way short of encouraging aggression. Of course Jeremy’s views were balanced out by those of Richard Hammond, who stood up for cyclists.
iPayRoadTax.com is an ironically-named campaign supporting the road rights of cyclists. The message that cyclists have equal rights on the roads is carried on iPayRoadTax t-shirts and jerseys.