Top Gear controversies
|This article may contain previously unpublished synthesis of published material that conveys ideas not attributable to the original sources. (October 2011)|
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.
- 1 Clarkson's criticism
- 2 Studio move
- 3 Accusations of homophobia
- 4 Cultural mockery
- 5 Anti-Islamic complaints
- 6 Tesla Roadster review
- 7 Specific criticism
- 7.1 Series 2, Episode 4: Classic car damage
- 7.2 Series 3, Episode 5: Tree damage
- 7.3 Series 8, Episode 6: Caravan fire
- 7.4 Series 9
- 7.5 Series 10
- 7.6 Series 12
- 7.7 Series 13
- 7.8 Series 15
- 7.9 Series 16
- 7.10 Series 17
- 7.11 Series 20
- 8 References
One of the programme's presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, has been critical of the BBC regarding the handling of the programme. 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.
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.
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.
Accusations of homophobia
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."
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."
Applause Store, a company that arranges studio audiences for the filming of the show does, however, insist "that groups of people coming to the recordings have a roughly 50/50 male/female split. This is so we don't end up with a bunch of ugly male car geeks ruining everyone's Sunday night!"
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, and led to viewers' complaints reaching the BBC Board of Governors.
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."
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 film starring Sacha Baron Cohen about the fictional journalist from Kazakhstan, which had scenes filmed in Romania. The film had already stirred a 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 national newspapers claimed that the comments were 'offensive' and 'bad publicity for their country'.
The Romanian Times also reported that Clarkson called Romania a "gypsy land". 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' 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.
The Daily Telegraph website was later hacked by an angry group of Romanians, who claimed that: "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).
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.||”|
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. The episode will have the Mexican comments cut from its broadcast in the United States.
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". He also criticised the show for what he described as lazy, adolescent humour and "casual racism" in reference specifically to this episode. Yahoo editor, Richard Evans, described the programme's conduct as another "Sachsgate waiting to happen".
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 in this instance stating
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.
However, Ofcom notes that taste in comedy can vary widely, and that these comments would not have been to everyone’s taste. Ofcom is not an arbiter of good taste, but rather it must judge whether a broadcaster has applied generally accepted standards by ensuring that members of the public were given adequate protection from offensive material. Humour can frequently cause offence. However, Ofcom considers that to restrict humour only to material which does not cause offence would be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of expression.Given the comedic intent and the context of this programme, Ofcom concluded that the broadcast of this material was justified by the context. The programme was therefore not in breach of Rule 2.3.
United States of America
Clarkson has been very critical of the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. He referred to USA as the United States of Total Paranoia, commenting that one needs a permit to do everything except for purchasing weapons.
The show received over 300 complaints when Clarkson made a joke regarding being able to see sexy lingerie beneath a Muslim woman's burka. The joke was branded 'distasteful' and 'offensive to Muslims'.
The show received a further 5,000 complaints following the presenters' dressing up in Burkas for their Middle East special. The Daily Mail reported that Muslims felt the act 'mocked their religion'. The show also received complaints from the episode, regarding Clarkson and Hammond's mocking of James May's head injury.
Tesla Roadster review
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. 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.
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." 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. In the months following Clarkson's acknowledgement, the original episode, including the mis-statements, was broadcast on BBC America and BBC Australia without any edits being made. It has been reported that the BBC is still looking into the show's journalism standards. In March 2011 Tesla Motors filed a suit accusing the BBC of libel.
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. Then 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." 
Series 2, Episode 4: Classic car damage
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.
Series 3, Episode 5: Tree damage
During the fifth episode of series three, Clarkson crashed a Toyota Hilux into a tree, during a segment in which he attempts to prove the sturdiness and reliability of the truck, through a series of torture tests. 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.
Series 8, Episode 6: Caravan fire
Following the broadcast of the sixth episode of series eight, the BBC received 150 complaints regarding the presenters burning a caravan to the ground during their caravan holiday in Dorset. James Tapper, writing for the British Mail on Sunday, claimed the episode's actions had been staged and that Dorset emergency services had been paid around £1,000 by the BBC for a six-man fire crew to participate in the mock fire. A BBC spokeswoman confirmed that the fire had been planned for safety reasons and that viewers were not misled due to the stunt's slapstick nature.
Episode 1: Brain injury insensitivity
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.
Episode 3: Dead cow incident
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.
Episode 5: Train crash reconstruction
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 2 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."
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. 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
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 "glamourise the misuse of alcohol", and that the scene "was not editorially justified in the context of a family show pre-watershed".
Episode 4: Salt Pan damage
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.
Episode 11: Top Ground Gear Force
Episode 1: Lorry drivers and prostitutes
Following the first episode of series twelve, Jeremy Clarkson was criticised for making a joke regarding lorry drivers killing prostitutes, thought to be alluding to the Ipswich 2006 serial murders. Ofcom received over 500 complaints, but say that the remark was not in breach of the broadcasting code. Afterward, Labour MP Chris Mole wrote a strongly worded letter to the BBC, saying that Clarkson should be sacked regarding the remarks. 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".
Episode 7: Volkswagen Scirocco commercial
During the final episode of series thirteen, 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. 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.
Episode 7: Stig shooting
A BBC spokesman confirmed there had been a considerable number of complaints regarding the presenters' American East Road Trip, which was broadcast in December 2010. The episode depicted the trio carrying out a drive-by shooting of The Stig, using cardboard cut-outs specially produced for the stunt.
Episode 3: Albania
The BBC received 600 complaints following the third episode of series sixteen, 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.
Episode 6: Nissan Leaf
This episode shows Clarkson and May parking their electric cars in disabled parking spots. Later the BBC defended its stars, stating that they had permission from the owners to park in the disabled spots. A later scene shows people pushing the Nissan Leaf up a street while Clarkson made jokes based on the fact it had run out of electric 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 themselves, in response to their view on electric cars.
Episode 4: Hovervan
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 actor Michael Bott posted on his online blog that he’d been hired by Top Gear to pose in the group of 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."
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