Jayne Dowle: The real reason why BBC has a beef with Clarkson

Many licence-fee payers will never forgive the BBC if Steakgate ends in Jeremy Clarkson leaving for pastures new.
Many licence-fee payers will never forgive the BBC if Steakgate ends in Jeremy Clarkson leaving for pastures new.
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IT comes to something when the Prime Minister finds it necessary to intervene in the fate of a television presenter. When that television presenter is Jeremy Clarkson, though, it’s a different ball game. For reasons which will become clear, this 54-year-old former public schoolboy from Doncaster has become something of a national treasure.

Somewhere in the rules of life, it must be written that we get the national treasures we deserve. And what more appropriate national treasure for our selfish, shallow times than a man who burns up the hemisphere for a living, insults people who travel by bus, suggests that striking public workers should be shot and gets into an argument in a hotel over a steak?

It just had to be a steak, didn’t it? When – it is reported – he was offered a cold platter instead of a hunk of red-blooded meat at a North Yorkshire hotel, the presenter reportedly lost his cool. The alleged fracas that resulted between Clarkson and his producer has led to the Top Gear presenter’s suspension from BBC duties, pending an investigation.

That said, I’m not sure I would want to be stuck in a lift with him, but I do like the way he talks about cars. And I might not agree with him on the matters of women, the French and public sector workers, but he is a naturally witty man. He does what other men only dream of: drives Ferraris, travels to China, gets to hang out with a gang of his mates and get paid for it. An online petition urging his reinstatement had already gathered more than 700,000 signatures – and counting – by Friday morning. There we go then. That’s why the Prime Minister has come out to bat for Clarkson.

Although you might think that the leader of the country has quite a few more pressing things to deal with, we mustn’t under-estimate this. Jeremy Clarkson might not be the secret crush of Germaine Greer, but he is a hero to thousands of chaps. I know families where the entire Sunday, including the dinner, has to be planned around the latest edition of Top Gear. Then, the whole family must relinquish control of the TV remote whilst the blokes of the house lap up all those endless laps round Brands Hatch.

Perhaps not for much longer, though. Clarkson’s future at the Beeb is in the balance, whilst Ken MacQuarrie conducts his investigation. It is telling that the Corporation has deemed it necessary to bring in the big guns. MacQuarrie was the BBC executive responsible for investigating the Newsnight disaster which falsely accused Tory peer Lord McAlpine of being involved in child abuse.

The Corporation is taking it that seriously. And here’s where we begin to get to the truth of why such a hullabaloo has blown up over what could have been a minor incident at the end of a long and stressful day’s filming.

Despite the fact that Clarkson is clearly popular with domestic audiences and his show is the BBC’s most successful foreign export – reportedly bringing in £50m a year – the Corporation appears squeamish about his appeal. It is well-documented that he does not get on with Danny Cohen, the director of television, who forced him to apologise after allegedly using a racist word on a recent edition of Top Gear.

And in a show of strength, Cohen has pulled the remaining three episodes of the programme whilst MacQuarrie’s investigation cranks into gear. For an organisation which pleads poverty and bleeds the public dry with its licence fee demands, this is commercial suicide, and foreign broadcasters who buy the programme are kicking up a fuss.

There has to be something deeper in this than a heated row over a steak. Could it be that in the right-on, politically-correct world of the BBC, Clarkson is just too male, too white and too middle-class to fit the mould? I think it would be safe to argue that he is. After all, this is a public service broadcasting organisation that lets Russell Brand loose on Newsnight.

It ties itself into such knots over who presents its shows, promotes a generally left-wing political agenda that confuses ordinary voters, and generally exhibits all the evidence of living in a completely separate universe from the country it seeks to reflect. Does anything prove this more than putting a highly-paid executive in charge of an investigation over a steak?

When the dust has settled, this is what licence-fee payers will remember of this incident. And if those who worship at the shrine of Clarkson end up losing their favourite presenter to another channel, they won’t forgive the BBC for it. They can hold all the hifalutin’ debates they like over news bias and gender equality, but nothing will touch a nerve like Clarkson taking his bat home.

What, though, of the man himself? I wouldn’t worry too much. What we must remember is that for all is man-of-the-people appeal, Clarkson is not like other people. He’s bigger. He’s louder. He’s more opinionated and he drives faster cars. Is he bigger than the BBC though? We’ll soon find out.