Hanging is, of course, too good for Jeremy Clarkson.
You wouldn't want to waste a bullet on him, either. Come the revolution, someone will probably put him up against a convenient wall. Until then, let's just pray he goes on strike for a very long time.
He might, you know. Perhaps the presenter – or do I say "shamed presenter"? – will decide that political correctness has gone mad once too often, and that he has made all the millions one man can make from the BBC by talking about torque, horsepower and sat navs. Or perhaps he'll remember that no one else will pay him £1.2 million a year for emitting vroom noises.
For all that, he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the corporation. His apology for jesting about the killing of public sector workers seemed a little half-hearted, as though he had mislaid the last toss he was prepared to give. He said he was sorry, but made it sound as if there was nothing to be sorry about. Just old Jezza having a laugh about slaughtering dinner ladies.
Which of course, in paraphrase, it was. Britain needs to lose its censorious streak, that habit of believing that if someone, somewhere, is liable to be even slightly put out by a remark the speaker must be placed in the virtual stocks. Do 21,000 people – at the time of writing – really have nothing better to complain about?
You could wonder, if you like, whether Clarkson counts as a BBC motoring journalist bound by the usual rules – and if not, why not – or as a freelance entertainer. You could ask yourself why his little insults always seem to have the same political tinge, not to say a sense of timing. But the unions have bigger fish to fry just at the moment, I'd have thought.
It's true that Clarkson has yet to tell us his joke about shooting Rupert Murdoch's phone hacking journalists, but that probably has nothing to do with the cheques he picks up from the Sun and the Sunday Times. It's also true that he has yet to find his friend David Cameron quite as hilarious as he found that lying "one-eyed Scottish idiot" Gordon Brown. No one has complained about Clarkson's thoughts on his other chum, Rebekah Brooks. That may be because he has had nothing to say, strangely enough, about the former News International executive.
Perhaps the satire involved is too subtle. Perhaps Clarkson is on a one-man mission to prove to his Conservative circle that the BBC really is run by a bunch of bleeding hearts who can't take a joke. And perhaps he's about to take a supercharged Flying Pigster coupe for a test spin.
But what of it? At which point did someone sincerely conclude that Clarkson was advocating mass executions for people exercising the right to strike? That he was merely repeating and amplifying the editorial line of the Conservative press against the public sector is hard to doubt. It wouldn't be the first time. It may even have infringed BBC editorial policy. A Paxman or a Marr would probably have been hauled over the coals for partisanship. In reality, it was nothing more than a political joke.
We're still allowed those, just about. Or rather, we're still allowed those if we don't go on Facebook with the suggestion that a riot would be a hoot. There are certainly double standards at work. But since the treatment of some of those accused of inciting mayhem during England's disorders was absurd and draconian – though Clarkson probably approved – it's hard to frame a case against a motor-mouthed motoring hack. Nor does the Jonathan Ross precedent apply: that involved picking on an unsuspecting individual.
What makes Clarkson's kerfuffle interesting is his presumptuousness, or perhaps his plain ignorance. In the week in which his friends David Cameron and George Osborne decided to inflict still more injury to the living standards of ordinary people, and to the lives of public sector workers in particular, the presenter simply assumed that the audience would be on his side. Bullies are like that. TV people who don't get out enough are like that. But Clarkson mistook his moment.
Mr Cameron tried to laugh off the whole affair. One of his spokespeople even joined in with a clumsy joke about Government policy on executions. They should be paying closer attention. Like all unfunny amateur comedians with predictable opinions, Clarkson thought he could safely pick on a minority. Clearly, he miscalculated. His drollery may have marked the moment at which patience with austerity and the pretence that we are all in this together ran out.
Perhaps that gives him too much credit, even backhandedly. But if the habits of outrage and complaint have become cultural markers, so to is the reaction to celebrities at odds with public opinion. Clarkson sounded as though we were still in the 1980s, as though Margaret Thatcher was still in power and disparaging whimsy about trade unions would find a ready audience. Some of the anger towards him must have something to do with the connections between the joke, a £1.2m pay packet, and the economic distress of the majority.
Someone is bound to say before long that Clarkson was attempting a parody of a Sun editorial. Dave Prentis of Unison said, indeed, that the presenter had managed "to confirm his caricature as an outlandishly right-wing figure". Clarkson might even argue that such was the real meaning of the joke. It's what he does, with all those heavy-handed gags about foreigners, environmentalists, or – stand back and admire the comedic craft – "black Muslim lesbians". The excuse is that he mocks himself. But the jokes, and the opinions they contain, survive. There is nothing post-modern about that.
So why defend him? I don't, not seriously. That would be like making a case for the entertainment value of tooth decay. I'll find Clarkson hilarious when he falls under the wheels of one of his supercars. The old conundrum remains, however. Gag Clarkson and you are required, in logic, to gag anyone making jokes liable to cause offence, even if they are jokes you happen to find funny, even if they are jokes making a point with which you agree. Comedy, paradoxically, is the point at which arguments over free speech become serious.
What have those 21,000 complainants actually said? That Clarkson was insulting? It's not actually a crime. That his remarks were not even slightly funny? He has escaped punishment for that crime for years. That he breached BBC rules on impartiality?
It would be up to the BBC to say – and about time, no doubt – whether freelances employed by independent production companies fall within its policies. If so, it would mean treating someone such as Ian Hislop, who may have given offence in his time, as a BBC journalist.
Clarkson might simply find that his peculiar vogue is reaching its end. The persona of the saloon bar bore who drives too fast and laughs at his own jokes – if persona it is – might have reached its expiry date. Discovering that he does not in fact say what most "ordinary blokes" are thinking might cause the wheels to come off his cherished career, finally. Send for the tow truck.
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