You sit down with your Christmas double-issue of the Radio Times on Wednesday 28th December and take a look at the evening’s television schedules. BBC One is offering wet grass and furry animals in the form of Countryfile; ITV1 boasts a round-up of all the year’s best TV advertisements in the imaginatively titled Ad of the Year; on the slightly more highbrow side of things, you could watch Jon Snow’s 2011 on Channel 4. But none of this takes your fancy. You’re in the mood for a little bit of causal racism, offensive stereotyping and general nastiness. What do you do? You turn over to BBC Two of course, as the Top Gear Christmas special is about to begin!
And so the fuss has begun again. The newspapers are full of it. Twitter is screaming itself hoarse with all the outraged viewers airing their disgust at Top Gear’s latest festival of xenophobic humour and smug bigotry. It was only a matter of weeks ago that its star Jeremy Clarkson caused a stir (to put it mildly) by suggesting on the BBC’s tea-time programme The One Show that public sector workers should be murdered in front of their families for exercising their right to go on strike. Nice bloke, that Clarkson. Of course, his fans (bless them) started to spew out their usual excuses on his behalf: “He’s only joking”, they groan; “Lighten up”, they sneer, as if anyone who objects to his offensive mutterings is in desperate need of a bit of fun. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many of these people hold Clarkson as some kind of hero because he refuses to be politically correct. If that’s the type of hero they want, they can have him. The rest of us can get on with our lives without desperately trying to upset people.
But although I admire those who speak out against the nastiness of Clarkson, there is a more disturbing angle on the Top Gear debate that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. The BBC actively markets the show to children. This is a sad and troubling truth, and one that has been growing on a commercial scale for a few years now. Annuals, fast car encyclopaedias, quiz books – all part of the Top Gear brand, and all published by the BBC Children’s Books imprint. Within their pages, you will not find the racism, the sexism or the homophobia you’d find on the TV show. But by publishing them as books for children, isn’t the BBC assuming children will, and do, watch Top Gear on television?
Top Gear has found itself in trouble a number of times for its intolerance and contempt towards minorities, including disabled people, gay people, people of a different race or culture, and people with Asperger’s syndrome. This is not the type of show that should be marketed to a young audience. If children hear Clarkson mocking groups of people because they are different, what’s to stop a young lad or girl, perhaps in the higher years of primary school, copying him? Why shouldn’t they use the word ‘gay’ as an insult, when their TV hero does it as well? After all, the aforementioned hero’s face is on the cover of the book they have in their schoolbag. People who disagree with my points here will, rather predictably, say that the offensive material in Top Gear passes over the kids’ heads. This insults their intelligence, and the intelligence of the children they are talking about.
My complaint here is not towards Clarkson, or Top Gear. They can victimise, insult and make fun of whoever they like; the ‘off’ button is there, nobody needs to put themselves through such viciousness if they don’t want to. What I object to is the BBC’s decision that this type of material is suitable for children. Bullying is already a big enough problem in British schools, particularly racially motivated and homophobic bullying. The teachers dealing with such issues would find their jobs much easier if the BBC didn’t help fan the flames of hatred.