Last week, Jeremy Clarkson was forced to apologise for having said a bad thing. A very bad thing. It is the only word in the whole English language that I can think of that is 100%, totally and utterly off limits. The word is “n****r”. Oh, unless you’re a black rapper, obviously, or Quentin Tarantino. In which case, go for your life.
In case you’re not familiar with the case, Clarkson was filming an episode of Top Gear 18 months ago and, when trying to decide between two cars, said the rhyme, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”. When he got to the traditional second line, “Catch a n****r by his toe”, he mumbled it under his breath.
They recorded three takes, and the one that made it to air replaced the word “n****r” with “teacher”. When listening to the rushes, Clarkson thought that, even though he mumbled the line, it was still too audible to run the risk of using it.
Unfortunately for him, somebody leaked the outtake. This prompted a recorded apology from Clarkson in which he quite literally begged forgiveness, emphasising that he had done everything in his power to make sure the offensive versions were scrapped. As a result of the leak, he was very nearly sacked from the BBC. But Tony Hall, the Director General, thought that was a step too far. He is now on a final warning.
Let’s be clear here. “n****r” is an offensive word, no two ways about it. Clarkson was right to think better of the mumble and to try and stop it going to air. And yes, he is acerbic and vitriolic at the best of times – usually for effect, which is half the reason people watch him. To draw a parallel, let’s face it, the only reason X Factor became the hit it was in the first place is because people enjoyed the car-crash telly and Cowell’s rude put-downs. Can you feel a “but” coming? Yes, there is one.
But if there are two things I really hate, it’s inconsistency and hypocrisy – and there is shed loads of both surrounding this incident.
Firstly, there is apparently some sort of acceptable get-out clause whereby if one says the “N-word” (I don’t mean “n****r”, I mean the actual phrase “the N-word”) there is no issue whatsoever. If you think about it logically, all that’s happening there is that the speaker or writer is making the listener or reader say it for them. Likewise, if I said that some people think that Jeremy Clarkson is a f***ing c**t, that would be absolutely acceptable in print, but calling him the actual words themselves wouldn’t be. To me, that’s ridiculous.
As an aside, fans of Have I Got News For You will know that it seems to be the case that you can say more or less anything about anyone, as long as you add the word “allegedly”. This one word apparently gets the speaker out of all sorts of libelous trouble. What sort of nonsensical red tape is that?
Secondly, whatever one thinks of Clarkson – be it an overpaid, bigoted, self-important, lads’ lad with a massive ego, or a very entertaining and knowledgeable petrolhead who is controversial just for the sake of ratings – a stupid man he most certainly is not. On the contrary, he’s incredibly shrewd. So he also knows full well that saying “n****r” would get him in the very deepest trouble and could easily cost him his job.
So again, logically, he would have to be incredibly stupid to lose himself one of the highest paid gigs at the BBC on the BBC’s most profitable worldwide export. Top Gear, in case you aren’t aware, earns the corporation more than £150m in revenue. Could someone else be the anchor? Well, possibly. Would it be as popular? Personally, I doubt it.
Thirdly, I constantly hear things on the BBC and other channels that are deliberately offensive, not just accidentally offensive. Does anyone remember Frankie Boyle referring to the Queen’s genitalia, or his suggestion that Katie Price’s disabled son might try to rape her? These were quite deliberate attempts to be offensive – they were planned. And understandably, a lot of people find Boyle one of the most repugnant people on television.
And don’t get me started on Lenny Henry. This is the man who has some actually quite worthy proposals to increase the number of black, Asian and minority workers in the television industry, but at the same time makes jokes about disabled people during Comic Relief – one of the most famous BBC platforms that is supposed to help the very people he was mocking.
Furthermore, we could spend all day talking about hypocrisy on every side of Parliament.
So if Jeremy Clarkson should be banned from the BBC, where would it end? Would we then ban Miss Marple? After all, Agatha Christie wrote a novel called Ten Little N****rs – later renamed And Then There Were None. Should we maybe ban Elvis Costello from the airwaves, or, even better, ban Glastonbury altogether? Costello uses “white n****r” in one of his biggest hits, Oliver’s Army. That was broadcast, uncensored, on the BBC in 2013, and I don’t remember much of a furore after that.
Indeed, when the word was edited out once on BBC 6 Music (and there were complaints because it had been removed on the basis that its inclusion was essential to an understanding of the song) the BBC even put out this statement:
“In this instance, it was decided that the song would be edited but it does not mean that it would always be the case.” In other words, the BBC would deliberately broadcast a song with the word “n****r” in it. Something of a double standard, surely?
Was Clarkson wrong to say “n****r”, even under his breath? Yes. Did he realise his error and try to stop it? Yes. Should he have apologised? Yes (and there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t sincere). Is racism wrong? Yes. Obviously. But so is all prejudice and bigotry, and I defy anyone to claim they don’t either hold some questionable views of their own, even in private, or have passed some sort of an inappropriate comment. And yes, inverted snobbery does count too. Personally, I wince at other people's Facebook updates on an almost daily basis!
So when it comes to Clarkson and N-word-gate, I’m certainly not saying he shouldn’t be sorry or reprimanded, but it’s an easy bandwagon to jump on. Can we please just have a bit of consistency?
If you want to see Jeremy Clarkson’s apology, you can below.
Ashley is a copywriter, editor and blogger