In seventeen hours, a quarter of a million people called on the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear to the BBC.
This outpouring of outrage comes after the final three episodes of the current series were pulled following ‘a fracas’ between Clarkson and a producer on the show. Although the details are not clear, it appears he threw a punch. It has been described as attempted assault. The Mirror suggest he snapped when he found out there was no catering provided following a day’s recording.
Clarkson is a controversy machine, with a fine-tuned engine just waiting to explode into action; whether it’s in Patagonia or while reciting a nursery rhyme, nowhere seems safe from his heterodox approach to life. And that’s probably why people love him. He’s a renegade, he’s a rebel, and he’s able to do the things many of us are sometimes tempted to do, but without the repercussions.
Two things strike me about the reaction to his suspension. Initially, that there are a lot of people who clearly like Clarkson, and secondly that there are a lot of people with their priorities pretty skewed.
There’s an issue for the BBC in potentially losing one of its biggest stars and if they lost Clarkson there’s no guarantee that Top Gear would be able to maintain its popularity, because Richard Hammond and James May are just a bit too nice. The BBC tried to continue after Clarkson left the show in 2001 only for it to be relaunched in its current form, with Clarkson back at the helm, a year later. For over a quarter of a century Clarkson has been a fixture in the BBC’s flagship motoring show. No wonder a quarter of a million want him back.
For all those demanding his return – and in the ten minutes it took to write these first few paragraphs another 11,000 have added their names to the petition – they don’t seem to mind what he has done. Did he punch someone, who was it, did they provoke him, has he apologised? None of these questions seem pertinent to their desire to have their hero back on the screen.
Clarkson should be treated no differently than any other employee – how many of us could get away with trying to punch someone who didn’t get us our dinner? How many would have more than the population of Newcastle – where the incident is reported to have occurred – rally to our defence? Who really thinks someone should be let off the hook because of their popularity? That would suggest a scale where the greater a person’s popularity, the greater the latitude that should be granted them with respect to their indiscretions. This is the inversion of Lord Acton’s, or Uncle Ben from Spiderman, maxim: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
What perhaps saddens, but doesn’t particularly surprise me is that so many would come rallying to his defence while not speaking out on many greater injustices. One stark comparison is the two and a half years it took the ‘No More Page 3’ petition to reach 240,000 signatures.
Clarkson even cheekily tweeted his apology – for knocking Justine Miliband’s big interview off the top of the news bulletins. The Telegraph have their chief reporter live blogging developments in the story. All sense of proportion seems to have been lost.
I get how news stories work. I understand why this is popular, why so many are animated. I also get why the BBC will feel pressure to reinstate him or let him off with a token punishment. But I also despair that this is what animates us. Online petitions are the weakest form of campaigning available – it’s not a form I advocate or usually think is effective, even when the cause is just and important. But when a petition like this goes stratospheric, I want to ban them altogether.