On November 30th last year, thousands of public sector workers went on a one-day strike to protest about reductions in their pension entitlements, and the increasing contributions they are having to make to earn those reduced benefits. This post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the pensions arguments, but rather about Jeremy Clarkson’s contribution to The One Show on that day. In parenthesis one might note that Clarkson’s most damaging contribution consisted not in what he said, but rather that pretty much the only thing that was talked about on the day, or that anyone can now remember about it, was Jeremy Clarkson rather than public sector pensions. But let that pass.
The furore was all about Mr Clarkson’s suggestion that the strikers should be “taken out and shot in front of their families”. Baldly stated like that, one might be tempted to think that this was indeed a disgraceful comment, and that the perpetrator deserves all the opprobrium and official sanctioning that the regulator, Ofcom, can muster. Not so. Clarkson’s joke wasn’t about the public sector pension strike at all, but rather about the BBC’s often rather onerous requirement to be “balanced”. He’d talked about how wonderful the strike had been by freeing up central London, and then with ponderous irony went on to say something that was supposed to provide a counterweight to the support for the strike implied by that initial enthusiasm – and taking out the strikers and shooting them, with the gratuitous addition of doing it in front of their families, was intended to be as strong an antidote as it was possible to provide.
This tells us a lot about Mr Clarkson’s sense of humour, about his lack of any sense of proportion, about his pretension to be an iconoclast, about his self-importance, and much else besides. Much of what it tells us reinforces the perception that Mr Clarkson is a most unpleasant man. But what it doesn’t do is suggest that Mr Clarkson was attempting to stir up or incite literal violence against the strikers, still less to indicate a serious intention to use a particular weapon, or to include an audience of relatives. It was ridiculous of Unison, the major striking union, to complain, to try and build the incident up into some sort of transgression against the strikers’ human rights. It was equally ridiculous that 31,000 automatons, largely I suspect the Twitter-inspired mob of rent-an-outrage activists, should be moved to moan to Ofcom about Jeremy Clarkson’s criminal tendencies.
It is, however, yet another example of two real tendencies. The first is to undergo a humour by-pass whenever anyone makes a joke which offends against the hearer’s political sympathies. And the second is the even more miserable tendency to seek redress for such offence at the court of the regulator, or even at the real courts. We see it time and again, whether it’s taking religious nutcases to court because, sprinkled amongst their other nonsensical outpourings is some spurious anti-gay tomfoolery, or whether it’s taking some frothing right-wing hack to the cleaners because they’ve been horrid about something or someone we hold dear. Tendencies which are particularly galling when displayed by those who happily make equally cruel or tasteless jokes in support of their own political perspectives, or who are immediately screaming about free speech when their own right to say anything they like is questioned by their political opponents.
It really is time we all grew up, and learnt what we should all have absorbed from our playground experience as kids: that bullies of all sorts love their notoriety, and hate to be ignored. So best to ignore them, don’t you think? And another thing. As Ofcom rightly pointed out, a joke is different from a real or literal intention. Something the courts might try and learn next time somebody tweets a joke about blowing up airports.