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Tuesday, May 06, 2014 

Clarkson and missing the real issue.

At times, I get the feeling I'm the only person ostensibly on the left who doesn't get instantly outraged when someone is accused of or indeed has used a racist epithet.  Now obviously, as a white 25 to 34 male who has enough free time to have spent the last coming up on nine years writing a politics blog almost every night, the first thing I should do is check my privilege.  

OK, privilege duly checked, and I still think that in most circumstances the context, rather than just the actual word used, is just as integral.

This is why Ron Atkinson had to be sacked when he described Marcel Desailly as a "fucking lazy nigger" in an aside to his co-commentator that was inadvertently broadcast in some countries due to the microphone being left open, and why Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC have just about got away with the former using the same word in unused rushes from Top Gear.  Some will vehemently disagree with me, but I simply don't accept the line that some words are so reprehensible or have such a history they should never be used unless reclaimed or for reference.  It's in how they're used, and Atkinson's ought to be the textbook example of insult married with latent racism. You could also include the case of the LA Clippers' owner, secretly recorded telling his girlfriend not to bring "black people" to games, as blatant, shocking prejudice.

With Clarkson the case is far more nuanced. Counting against him is that at first he seemed to deny he had used the word at all, then in his apology that he hadn't done enough to disguise the word or not say it at all. As is fairly apparent from the video the Mirror soon provided, he does say nigger, albeit quietly. In his favour is he's using the word in the context of the well-known child's rhyme, eeny meeny meiny mo, in order to choose the car to drive. While there are variations on it, Clarkson was more than likely brought up on the version he used, before the word rightly become truly beyond the pale. Old sayings often become engrained in the mind; there was also controversy a few years ago when a judge talked of "the nigger in the woodpile", with a Tory peer also using the phrase.  Offence wasn't intended, but both should have known not to use such an archaic metaphor. For further context, the rhymes we used playing tag when I was a sprog were similarly vulgar: we usually alternated between "each peach pear plum, choose your best bum chum" or "ip dip dog shit fucking bastard silly git you are not it".  Then again, I can't say if I was a TV presenter on a popular motoring programme I would use either to faux choose which automobile to hammer round a race course.

The problem is Clarkson's apology video thickens the plot somewhat.  If as he says there was a take where he said teacher, it seems odd that he would have written a note at all to the production staff telling them to use that rather than the others unless he wanted to be certain.  It would make more sense if they had overdubbed the scene later, especially as Clarkson does lower his voice when say the specific part, and changed it to teacher then.  More likely is that someone said, err, Jeremy, we can't use that for obvious reasons and they then did the teacher take, with Clarkson having seen the rushes later sending a note to confirm the change.

As the epithet wasn't specifically directed at anyone, it was never intended to be broadcast, it's possible Clarkson was mumbling precisely because the intention was to overdub the sound later and an apology was reasonably swift in forthcoming, I don't really have a massive problem with the BBC issuing a final warning.  Indeed, I'd say the use of "slope" during the Burma show was by those standards far more serious and worthy of further action, as it was directed at someone and with Clarkson apparently safe in the knowledge that not many people (myself included) would even realise he was talking about the man on the bridge.  Top Gear often walks the incredibly fine line between stereotyping for (dubious) comedy effect and outright prejudice, arguably staying just about on the right side of it.  You can say this is further evidence of how Clarkson has form, and he probably does.  Is he racist though, rather than just an arse, tweaking the nose of the politically correct, as Paul Dacre described it?  Probably not.

The danger here as so often is that with focusing on the ephemera we miss the significance of other statements that have gone almost entirely unchallenged.  Last year saw Nigel Farage repeatedly claim that London was going through a Romanian crimewave, without a single opposition politician challenging him on picking out a specific community, or indeed making clear that the figures are disputed and have been repeatedly misunderstood.  More recently, as Atul Hatwal writes in one of the first posts on Labour Uncut I've ever agreed with, Farage has moved on to saying people would be right to be concerned if a Romanian family moved in on their street, with the party's spin doctor repeating that message, again with only the heavily criticised campaign against the UKIPs saying anything about racism, and without directly calling them out on their sub-Powellite message.  Directed against almost any other community, creed, or race, there would deservedly be a Clarkson-type outcry.

As potentially self-defeating as it is call out the party's underlings, to not do so when it comes to Farage and others at the top of the party is sheer cowardice, especially when Farage has now resorted to highlighting the party's "black and ethnic minority candidates", having decided not to do so on their previous conference literature.  Regardless of what you think about Clarkson, the failure to properly take on UKIP bodes extremely ill for the general election campaign to come.

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