Top Gear controversies

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The British motoring-themed television programme Top Gear is often the focus of criticism. The criticism has ranged from minor viewer complaints to serious complaints where broadcasting watchdogs such as Ofcom have been involved.

Clarkson's criticism[edit]

One of the programme's presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, has been critical of the BBC regarding the handling of the programme.[1] In the February 2006 issue of Top Gear Magazine, Clarkson revealed that he thought that the BBC did not take Top Gear seriously, making the length of the series far too long, and often replacing the show with live snooker coverage, despite Top Gear having considerably higher viewing figures.[2]

In July 2006, the BBC rejected a variety of complaints regarding the criticism, claiming the producers and presenters choose the way they are covered, and that the BBC do not have any control over it. They argued that the presenters' provocative comments are "an integral part of the programme and are not intended to be taken seriously." Regarding offensive remarks traded between presenters and members of the audience, the BBC said "this is part of the appeal of the show, and we trust most viewers are familiar enough with the style and tone of the show not to take offence." The BBC pointed out that they would act if such statements and actions were carried out with any degree of seriousness or if the programme breached legal and safety requirements.[3]

Studio move[edit]

Top Gear was in negotiations with the BBC to move to Enstone in north Oxfordshire, close to the home of the Lotus F1 team's British base, and to Clarkson's home in Chipping Norton. However, the producers were unable to negotiate a deal, after their initial application was blocked due to opposition by local residents, due to fears that Top Gear would create pollution and noise issues.[4]

Accusations of homophobia[edit]

In December 2006, the BBC upheld complaints from four viewers after comments made by Jeremy Clarkson were considered to be homophobic references, had the potential to offend and should not have been broadcast. The complaints regarded comments made by Clarkson in the seventh episode of series six, in which Clarkson described the Daihatsu Copen as "a bit gay". He later described the vehicle as "ginger beer", taken to be rhyming slang for the term "queer". The BBC said there was "no editorial purpose" for the remarks and the "Top Gear team had been reminded of the importance of avoiding such comments about sexual orientation."[5]

In December 2009, it was reported that a gay couple had been denied tickets to see the show being filmed. A BBC spokesperson said, "We do not – absolutely do not – discriminate against same sex couples... the whole implication that Top Gear is in any way homophobic is completely wrong."[6]

Cultural mockery[edit]

Germany[edit]

During the first episode of series seven, a news segment featuring BMW's MINI Concept from the Tokyo Motor Show showcased a car that Hammond quoted as supposedly being "quintessentially British", the only added feature being an integrated tea set. Clarkson responded by mocking the car, claiming that they should build a car that is "quintessentially German". He suggested turn signals that displayed Hitler salutes, "a sat-nav that only goes to Poland" (in reference to the Nazi invasion of Poland), and "ein fanbelt that will last a thousand years", a reference to Adolf Hitler's propaganda slogan of "the thousand-year Reich". These statements gained negative attention from the German Government,[7] and led to viewers' complaints reaching the BBC Board of Governors.[8]

In July 2006, the BBC Governors’ Programme Complaints Committee rejected the protests: "the Committee did not believe that, when looking at the audience as a whole, they would have felt that the comments were anything more than Jeremy Clarkson using outrageous behaviour to amuse his audience, and that the remarks would not have led to anyone entertaining new or different feelings or concerns about Germans or Germany".[9]

Romania[edit]

During the opening episode of series fourteen, the presenters were seen taking the Aston Martin DBS Volante, Ferrari California and Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder on a road trip to Romania. While driving through the Romanian countryside, Clarkson commented on Romania as being "Borat country, with gypsies and Russian playboys", referring to the 2006 mockumentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen about the fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, which had filmed a few scenes in Romania. The film had already stirred controversy in the country, with a number of local Roma who were involved in the film attempting to sue 20th Century Fox and Cohen. Romanian newspapers claimed that the comments were "offensive" and "bad publicity for their country".[10]

The Romanian Times also reported that Clarkson called Romania a "gypsy land".[11] Complaints were also rife regarding Clarkson's actions to don a silly looking pork pie hat which he called a "gypsy" hat, while commenting: "I'm wearing this hat so the gypsies think I am [another gypsy]." The Romanian ambassador later sent a letter to the producers of Top Gear, in which he showed his appreciation for the show, highlighted the press's freedom of expression, the non-discriminatory spirit, and the fact that 89.5% of the country's population is Romanian, 6.5% is ethnic Hungarians, 2.5% are ethnic Roma and 1.5% are other ethnic groups. He also asked for the show to be re-edited for future showings to exclude the offensive material.[12]

The Daily Telegraph was hacked by a group of Romanians, who stated, "We are sick of being mis-represented as Gypsies, and thanks to Top Gear, have been publicly insulted". The group took over two pages of the website, covering them in Romanian flags and playing Gheorghe Zamfir - Lonely Shepherd (featured on the soundtrack to the film Kill Bill).[13][14]

Mexico[edit]

During the second episode of series sixteen, the presenters mocked the Mexican Mastretta sports car on account of it being designed in Mexico. James May introduced the car as "The Tortilla", then remarked that he did not remember what it was called. Hammond then stated: "Cars reflect national characteristics...a Mexican car's just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a moustache, leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat". This was followed up by James May suggesting that all Mexican food resembles "refried sick", Richard Hammond remarking, "I'm sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you're Mexican" with a look of disgust on his face, and Jeremy Clarkson adding, "It'd be brilliant because you could just go straight back to sleep again!" Clarkson ended the segment by suggesting that the Mexican ambassador to Britain would be too lazy to make any kind of complaint. This prompted the Mexican ambassador, Eduardo Medina Mora, to write to the BBC: "The presenters of the program resorted to outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable insults to stir bigoted feelings against the Mexican people, their culture as well as their official representative in the United Kingdom. These offensive, xenophobic and humiliating remarks only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice against Mexico and its people".[15]

BBC issued a letter defending the anti-Mexican jokes, stating that national stereotyping was a robust part of British humour, but apologizing to the Mexican ambassador for the remarks made about him personally.[16] The episode will have the Mexican comments cut from its broadcast in the United States.[17]

Comedian Steve Coogan, who has appeared on the show three times, criticised the programme for its pitiful apology, suggesting that the usual defence of "a bit of a laugh", or "harmless fun" was no longer appropriate, that the insults had gone too far, and described the comments as "as funny as a cold sweat followed by shooting pains down the left arm".[18] He also criticised the show for what he described as lazy, adolescent humour and "casual racism" in reference specifically to this episode.[19] Yahoo editor, Richard Evans, described the programme's conduct as another "Sachsgate waiting to happen".[20]

The presenters repeatedly referenced the incident in the following episodes of the series; on one occasion, after he and Hammond threatened each other with violence following a dispute over the Cool Wall, Clarkson described the situation as a "Mexican standoff". The set of the 41st series of Have I Got News for You, which depicts various recent news stories, includes a mocked-up image of Clarkson dressed like a Mexican in reference to the controversy. The incident was referenced further in the India special, where Hammond accidentally painted a Mexican flag on his car after he intended to paint an Indian one. The incident was referenced to once again in the second episode of series 19, in which the presenters had to race three high-performance cars from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, where the last person to arrive would have to do a review of the Mastretta Sports car in an upcoming episode.

However the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom cleared the programme due to its "comedic intent and the context":[21]

In this case, Ofcom took into account that Top Gear is well known for its irreverent style and sometimes outspoken humour, as well as the regular format of the studio banter between the three presenters. We considered that viewers of Top Gear were likely to be aware that the programme frequently uses national stereotypes as a comedic trope and that there were few, if any, nationalities that had not at some point been the subject of the presenters’ mockery throughout the history of this long running programme. For example, this same episode featured a competition between the UK’s Top Gear presenters and their Australian counterparts, throughout which the Australians were ridiculed for various national traits. In this instance, therefore, Ofcom considered that the majority of the audience would be familiar with the presenters’ approach to mocking, playground-style humour, and would have considered that applying that approach to national stereotypes was in keeping with the programme’s usual content, and the presenters’ typical style. Ofcom was of the view that the majority of the audience would therefore be likely to have understood that the comments were being made for comic effect.

Clarkson racial slurs[edit]

Clarkson came under severe criticism and numerous calls for the BBC to fire him regarding two racial slurs that came to light in close succession. First was the use of the word "slope" as a pejorative against Asian people in the Burma Special during Series 21. Soon afterward it came to light that in an unaired outtake while reciting a variant of the Eeny, meeny, miny, moe nursery rhythm during a car review in Series 19, Episode 3, he used the "n-word" (nigger). The incidents resulted in the BBC giving Clarkson a final warning in regard to racial gaffes.[22]

Argentina[edit]

In September and October 2014 the three presenters Clarkson, Hammond, May and a crew of 29 people were recording the Top Gear Christmas Special in Argentina featuring three cars—a Porsche 928 GT, a Lotus Esprit and a Ford Mustang Mach I. They had started in Bariloche on September 19[23] and travelled southward on the trans-Patagonian Route 40, about 1,000 miles (1,600 km). On October 2 they had arrived in Ushuaia, at the southern end of Tierra del Fuego. The plan was to film for three more days, and then to continue in Chile.

During filming, Twitter comments alleging the number plate "H982 FKL" on the Porsche was a reference to the Falklands War began to appear and the number plate "H1 VAE" was substituted.[24] Andy Wilman, executive producer for the show, said on October 2: "Top Gear production purchased three cars for a forthcoming programme; to suggest that this car was either chosen for its number plate, or that an alternative number plate was substituted for the original is completely untrue"; Clarkson tweeted: "For once, we did nothing wrong".[25] The plate in question has been registered to the Porsche since its manufacture in May 1991.[26]

In the evening veterans and other Argentinians entered the hotel lobby to confront the team. Clarkson later wrote he "had to hide under a bed for a mob howling for his blood".[27] Local police then told the team they could and would not give them any assistance, and in the hostile atmosphere the team decided to leave Argentina. Believing that the presenters were the main targets of the controversy, the crew decided to send Clarkson, May, Hammond and the women from the crew to Buenos Aires, while the rest would drive the cars and their equipment to the border into Chile. May later stated that, prior to flying back to England, he and the other presenters had assisted in planning possible airlifts if the journey to the border became too dangerous. The main Route 3 by which they had arrived in Rio Grande a day earlier, was closed to them because the ringway was filled with people, "the mayor in front".[28][29] They drove to the border at Radman by tertiary roads, about 160 mi (250 km). In Tolhuin, after 62 mi (100 km), the caravan was stopped by an intimidating crowd. The team decided to abandon the three show cars, and reached the border with Chile later that night. At 2 a.m., they had to find a tractor to ford the camera cars through the border river. Pictures show that the abandoned cars had been attacked and damaged with stones. The Porsche had the number plate "HI VAE".[25][27][28]

On 31 October 2014, It was announced that the Argentine ambassador Alicia Castro met BBC Director of Television Danny Cohen to demand a formal apology, but the BBC refused to do so, making it clear that they intended to broadcast the special as a fair representation of the events that occurred.[30]

Tesla Roadster review[edit]

During episode seven of series twelve, Clarkson presented a segment featuring the Tesla Roadster, including a test drive. The segment showed the car's provided batteries running flat after 88.5 kilometres (55.0 mi), with Clarkson claiming that the recharge would take 16 hours. Following this, he claimed that the car then broke down. Tesla Motors spokesperson stated that the cars provided never reached less than 20% charge, none needed to be pushed off the track at any point, the recharge time was 3.5 hours, and the brake failure shown in the segment was actually a blown fuse.[31][32] The BBC responded to these claims with a statement saying, "The tested Tesla was filmed being pushed into the shed in order to show what would happen if the Roadster had run out of charge. Top Gear stands by the findings in this film and is content that it offers a fair representation of the Tesla's performance on the day it was tested", without addressing the other concerns.[32][33][34]

The comments were made following Clarkson showing a limp windmill, and complaining that it would take countless hours to refuel the car, using such a source of electricity. A BBC spokeswoman said several times in an interview that Top Gear was "an entertainment programme, and should not be taken seriously."[35] After several weeks, Clarkson wrote a blog for The Times, acknowledging that "the film we had shot was a bit of a mess", but defending the film's claims.[36] Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, wrote in a blog on 13 February 2013 that while delivering the vehicle the Tesla team found on a table a prepared script for the segment, demonstrating this was never a fair test.[37] In March 2011 Tesla Motors filed a suit accusing the BBC of libel.[38]

In court Tesla Motors lost a major part of its high court libel claim on 19 October 2011. Mr Justice Tugendhat said that no Top Gear viewer would have reasonably compared the car's performance on the show's airfield track to its likely performance on a public road.[39] On 28 October 2011 the carmaker looked set to lose the remaining malicious falsehood claim, Mr Justice Tugendhat saying "I shall strike out the claim in this action unless the plea of damage is amended by agreement between the parties, or with the permission of the court." [40]

Specific criticism[edit]

Series 2, Episode 4: Classic car damage[edit]

After a segment on the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans, the programme received criticism for damaging a historic Jaguar C-Type valued at £1 million. Top Gear responded that they had permission to "drive the car hard" but Adrian Hamilton, the car's owner, and Top Gear's test driver had different ideas on what that meant.[41]

Series 3, Episode 5: Tree damage[edit]

During the fifth episode of series three, Clarkson crashed a Toyota Hilux into a tree, during a segment in which he attempted to prove the sturdiness and reliability of the truck. The tree belonged to the Churchill Parish in Somerset. The villagers presumed that the damage had been accidental, or that someone had vandalised the tree, until the Top Gear episode was broadcast. After the BBC was contacted, the director of Top Gear admitted guilt and the broadcaster paid compensation.[42]

Series 9[edit]

Episode 1: Brain injury insensitivity[edit]

The BBC apologised to a number of Top Gear viewers following comments made during the first episode of series nine. Clarkson asked Hammond following his 370 km/h (230 mph) crash, "Are you now a mental?", which was followed by James May offering Richard Hammond a tissue "in case he dribbled". The BBC claimed the comments were meant as a joke, but also claimed they saw how the comments could cause offence to mentally disabled and brain-damaged viewers.[43]

Episode 3: Dead cow incident[edit]

During the show's American Special, the show received 91 complaints regarding a dead cow being tied to the roof of Jeremy Clarkson's Camaro. It was later revealed by the BBC that the cow had died several days previously and Clarkson had caused no harm or injury to it.[44]

Episode 5: Train crash reconstruction[edit]

Episode five of series nine was criticised for Jeremy Clarkson's reconstruction of a train crash that occurred in Hibaldstow, North Lincolnshire, near Scunthorpe. The incident was mainly criticised due to its insensitivity regarding the Cumbria train crash that occurred only two days earlier. The reconstruction, which was organised by Network Rail as part of its Don't Run The Risk campaign, was criticised by Anthony Smith, chief executive of the rail watchdog Passenger Focus, who said: "We need to raise awareness of the issue, but now is not the right time."[45]

It was reported that the item had already been delayed several times, due to an earlier fatal level crossing crash. The BBC defended their decision to broadcast the episode, claiming that "with only one programme remaining in the series, and the frequency of level crossing accidents, it may have been considered that there was no "appropriate" time to show the film without it "offending" somebody.[46] A repeat of the episode was due to be aired on 1 March 2007, but due to the earlier complaints, and another death on a level crossing earlier that morning, was replaced with a new edition of "The Best of Top Gear".

Episode 7: Drinking while driving[edit]

During the show's Polar special at the end of series nine, Jeremy Clarkson was shown drinking gin and tonic while driving through an ice field in the Arctic. Despite the producers' and Clarkson's claims that they were in international waters at the time, the BBC Trust found that the scene could "glamorise the misuse of alcohol", and that the scene "was not editorially justified in the context of a family show pre-watershed".[47]

Series 10[edit]

Episode 4: Salt Pan damage[edit]

During the show's Botswana special, a spokesperson for the Environmental Investigation Agency criticised the BBC for leaving tracks in Botswana's Makgadikgadi salt pan. The BBC denied that they had gone near any conservation areas, and asserted that they had followed the advice of environmental experts.[48]

Episode 11: Top Ground Gear Force[edit]

The BBC received 65 complaints about the show's Sport Relief special, "Top Ground Gear Force", in which the presenters destroyed Sir Steve Redgrave's garden while attempting to redesign it.[49]

Series 12[edit]

Episode 1: Lorry drivers and prostitutes[edit]

Following the first episode of series 12, Jeremy Clarkson was criticised for making a joke regarding lorry drivers killing prostitutes, thought to be alluding to the Ipswich 2006 serial murders.,[50] although it is more likely that Clarkson was referring to the Yorkshire Ripper. Ofcom received over 500 complaints, but say that the remark was not in breach of the broadcasting code. Afterwards, Labour MP Chris Mole wrote a strongly worded letter to the BBC, saying that Clarkson should be sacked regarding the remarks.[51] In response to the complaints on the show, Clarkson announced he would apologise, but later revealed that he was, in fact, apologising for not posting the lap time of a car that was shown on the previous episode. The incident was referenced when Stephen Fry appeared as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car in July 2009. Clarkson introduced the interview by stating that Fry had "begun his career with a Lorry (Laurie), so the one thing we can be certain he hasn't done is killed a prostitute".

Series 13[edit]

Episode 7: Volkswagen Scirocco commercial[edit]

During the final episode of series 13, Clarkson and May were assigned to produce a spoof advert for the new Volkswagen Scirocco. However, one of their spoof ads saw crowds of people leaving Warsaw in terror on buses and trains, because of the imminent German invasion of Poland. At the end of the advert, Clarkson announced "Volkswagen Scirocco TDI: Berlin to Warsaw in one tank"'. The advert was uploaded to YouTube minutes after its broadcast, spurring angry comments from Polish viewers. A spokeswoman for the show told the Daily Mail that the BBC had only received a handful of complaints, but complaints submitted to national broadcast watchdog Ofcom were expected to be higher.[52] Complaints were also received for three other incidents in the programme: a remake of a VW advertisement, in which a suicide is shown on-screen; Clarkson mocking people who have Asperger's Syndrome, and the use of the word 'Pikey', which Clarkson claims to be someone who sells 'pegs and heather' to describe drivers of the Vauxhall VXR8 Bathurst.[53]

Series 15[edit]

Series 16[edit]

Episode 3: Albania[edit]

The BBC received 600 complaints[citation needed] following the third episode of series 16, following an incident in which the presenters 'murdered' a fat Albanian and attempted to find out which of three car boots he would fit into the best. The episode was also criticised for its stereotypical views on Albania, claiming it is a nest for mafia car thieves.[54]

Series 17[edit]

Episode 6: Nissan Leaf[edit]

This episode showed Clarkson and May parking their electric cars in disabled parking spaces. Later the BBC defended its stars, stating that they had permission from the owners to park in the disabled spaces. A later scene showed people pushing the electric Nissan Leaf up a street while Clarkson made jokes based on the fact it had run out of charge. Nissan later discovered from onboard data logging that before the "test drive" its charge had been run down to only 40 per cent capacity. Since then Top Gear has received criticism from electric car enthusiasts, newspapers, celebrities, and Nissan itself, in response to their view on electric cars.[55]

Series 19[edit]

Episode 3: N-Word[edit]

In an unaired version of Jeremy Clarkson reviewing the Toyota GT86 and the similar Subaru BRZ, he uses the n-word as part of an eeny meeny miny moe rhyme to pick between the two cars. While he mumbles the word, it is audible. In the aired version of the review, he substitutes the n-word for 'teacher'.

After initially denying the incident, once video evidence surfaced, Clarkson backtracked and issued the following apology.

"Ordinarily I don't respond to newspaper allegations but on this occasion I feel I must make an exception. A couple of years ago I recorded an item for Top Gear in which I quote the rhyme "eeny, meeny, miny, moe". Of course, I was well aware that in the best-known version of this rhyme there is a racist expression that I was extremely keen to avoid. The full rushes show that I did three takes. In two, I mumbled where the offensive word would normally occur and in the third I replaced it altogether with the word teacher. Now when I viewed this footage several weeks later I realised that in one of the mumbled versions if you listen very carefully with the sound turned right up it did appear that I'd actually used the word I was trying to obscure. I was mortified by this, horrified. It is a word I loathe and I did everything in my power to make sure that that version did not appear in the programme that was transmitted."

"I have here the note that was sent at the time to the production office and it says: "I didn't use the N-word here but I've just listened through my headphones and it sounds like I did. Is there another take that we could use?"

"Please be assured I did everything in my power to not use that word, as I'm sitting here begging your forgiveness for the fact my efforts obviously weren't quite good enough, thank you."[56]

Though this incident happened before the 'slope' comment in the Burma special, it didn't surface until afterward and the combined complaints caused many public figures to call for Clarkson to be fired and ultimately resulted in a 'final warning' from the BBC regarding racist remarks.[57]

Series 20[edit]

Episode 4: Hovervan[edit]

In this episode, Top Gear was accused of faking a scene in which riverbank diners have their meal interrupted by a deluge of water from a passing hovervan, which the three presenters had built to show what can be done to help flood prone areas. The accusations were started after Michael Bott said on his blog that he’d been hired by Top Gear to pose as one of the diners. A BBC spokesperson responded to the accusations saying "Top Gear is an entertainment programme and I don’t think the viewers would have been taken in."[58]

Series 21[edit]

Episode 7 (Burma Special): "slope" comment[edit]

The Top Gear presenters go across Burma and Thailand in lorries with the goal of building a bridge over the river Kwai. The team actually builds a bridge over the river Kok. After the bridge is completed, Clarkson is quoted as saying "That is a proud moment, but there's a slope on it." as a native crosses the bridge, 'slope' being a pejorative for Asians.

Top Gear Executive Producer Andy Wilman responded:

When we used the word slope in the recent Top Gear Burma Special it was a light-hearted word play joke referencing both the build quality of the bridge and the local Asian man who was crossing it. We were not aware at the time, and it has subsequently been brought to our attention, that the word slope is considered by some to be offensive and although it might not be widely recognised in the UK, we appreciate that it can be considered offensive to some here and overseas, for example in Australia and the USA. If we had known that at the time we would not have broadcast the word in this context and regret any offence caused. [59]

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