Is Jeremy Clarkson beyond managerial discipline?
As TV presenter is suspended and Top Gear’s future uncertain, has the BBC allowed him to get bigger than the show’s brand?
The latest controversy to engulf TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson could be the straw that broke the Vauxhall’s chassis, following his suspension from flagship BBC show Top Gear for allegedly punching a producer. The situation is symptomatic of the dilemmas managers face in dealing with talented and successful – but provocative – staff.
According to reports, Clarkson allegedly hit Oisin Tymon, 36, after being told no dinner had been laid on for the presenters after they finished filming for the BBC 2 show one evening last week. Clarkson was suspended on Tuesday morning, and the remaining three episodes of Top Gear’s current run have been pulled from the schedules.
Since Top Gear’s revival in 2002, Clarkson has been accused of making a series of offensive remarks – but his irrepressible, bullish style has turned him into global star. So can the BBC afford to let go of Clarkson, potentially leading him, his fans and his lucrative activities to rivals ITV, Channel 4 or Sky?
Top Gear makes millions of pounds for BBC Worldwide every year, and just hours after news of Clarkson's suspension became public, an online petition spawned by political blogger Guido Fawkes demanded his reinstatement. At the time this article was published, the petition had notched up almost 450,000 signatures.
Last May, BBC Director General Tony Hall intervened on a row over Clarkson’s alleged use of the “N-word” in an outtake that crept off the cutting-room floor, which apparently showed him mouthing the expletive as he recited a nursery rhyme. Following that incident, BBC controller of television Danny Cohen wanted to suspend him – but Hall swept in to put the high-value frontman on a “final warning”. Other incidents that blighted Clarkson’s CV last year included his reference to an Asian man as a “slope”, and the Top Gear team’s careless move to trigger a riot in Argentina by driving a Porsche with a number-plate message that deliberately inflamed tensions over the Falklands War.
Critics have complained that Clarkson has too often been given a pass on his indiscretions by the BBC because of Top Gear’s immense profitability – indeed, the show is sold to 214 territories, and ranks as the most popular factual television programme in the world.
Given that the BBC has allowed him to become synonymous with the Top Gear brand – rather than demonstrating at a much earlier stage that no individual presenter is bigger than the show – are we heading for a situation where Hall’s final warning wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on?
And if so, what does this mean for the value of his current suspension?
The answers may lie in the lap of Cohen, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the executive ranks and is tipped as a future BBC director-general. In the wake of the “N-word” incident, Cohen signalled an implacable unwillingness to put up with the 54-year-old petrolhead’s offensive gaffes, and ordered an investigation into Top Gear’s culture and practices. “It’s like football clubs,” he said at the time. “No one is bigger than the club. I found [the racist language] entirely unacceptable.”
UPDATE – 12:45, 12 March
Darryll Thomas, employment law specialist at the Wilkes Partnership, has commented today about the range of legal issues the BBC is facing over the Clarkson fracas.
On the nature of the allegations...
“From an employment law perspective, the allegations made against Jeremy Clarkson are very serious – and, if proven, would certainly amount to gross misconduct. In any normal employment situation, I would expect the employee/contractor to be suspended and an investigation to take place, followed by a disciplinary hearing if the investigation throws up a case to answer. If it was proven that Clarkson had struck a colleague, as is alleged, in those circumstances I would expect summary dismissal or immediate termination of his service contract. This is particularly so, given his previous high profile indiscretions – plus the fact that it has been reported he was told last year he was on a final warning following allegations of racial comments.
“Even if those things had not happened, assaulting a colleague is of such a serious nature that it is a standalone basis for dismissal."
On the third-party pressure of the petition...
“Despite the public petition to reinstate Clarkson, currently with more than 700,000 signatures, all employers have a duty of care to their employees, which in this case would be the assaulted producer. The producer is entitled to a safe working environment and could argue that if Clarkson was left unpunished by this, then the BBC has breached his employment contract – entitling him to resign and claim constructive dismissal. There is also clear caselaw that employers should not consider third-party pressure and demands when making a decision relating to matters such as this.
“Reinstating Clarkson before an investigation has taken place could set a dangerous precedent across the corporation if a matter of this high profile goes unpunished – regardless of the fact that Top Gear is one of the BBC’s most successful programmes. Given its standing as a world-famous public-sector organisation, the BBC should be setting at the very least a basic-standard example.”
For further thoughts about how poor ethical behaviour harms the bottom line, check out CMI’s recent report The MoralDNA of Performance.