Arrested simply for being Jeremy Clarkson.
TV's most famous fake farmer shows he (and his editors at The Sunday Times) care diddly squat about quoting accurately.
Previously: Beard New World
A short look inside the eggy egotism of Evgeny Lebedev's vanity podcast.
Selective quotation is a well-used instrument in the tabloid toolkit. It’s the See-No-Evil Monkey luxuriating in the velvety darkness in front of its eyes; missing the point turned into an art form — looking right at it while humming, “la la la, can’t see you,” and conjuring up a completely different point that you wanted to be there the whole time. The most brazen technicians of the selective quote will go so far as to deny entirely that any other interpretation is possible.
The Sunday Times’ editors would, no doubt, assure you that it is a broadsheet — a slab of newsprint and supplements designed for the discerning reader — but, like its six-day sibling The Times, it differs from The Sun only in having an even more inflated sense of its own importance, access to a more expensive thesaurus, and a range of more baroque excuses for illustrating stories with images of attractive women in various states of undress.
Several Sunday Times contributors do double duty as Sun columnists, with Rod ‘I couldn’t be a teacher because I’d fuck the kids’ Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson among those contracted to spray their opinions across both publications. The latter, following a brief pantomimed bout of contrition when his fevered imaginings about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, being pilloried in the street didn’t receive the braying approval to which he’s become accustomed, swiftly returned to type.
In Friday’s Sun, he compared the US/UK bombing of the Houthis to “a hedge dispute” between neighbours, relitigated the old pub bore argument about whether snooker is a sport or a game, and tossed off a series of other half-arsed, joke-flavoured thoughts on turbulence, conscription, wood burners, taxi drivers and… Postman Pat. It was just missing some rote material on airline food.
The Clarkson of The Sun is a hack comic appearing on Radio 4’s Now Show or The News Quiz, delivering ‘topical’ quips, only without the requirement to make an audience of heavily medicated pensioners listlessly chuckle. In The Sunday Times, he’s more like an act given a Netflix special where he can indulge in longer riffs without the finger-jammed-on-the-fast-forward demand to switch topic every 350 words. The underlying attitude — a smugness so thick you could drizzle it on pancakes combined with the braying contempt of 1000,000 Range Rover drivers — remains the same.
Having been lolling, fat and happy like a prize pig in his Sunday Times berth for decades, Clarkson escapes anything resembling robust editing. His purpose is to give his editors and readers the frisson of standing next to a bully cracking out their best Muttley laugh; “He says what we’re all thinking!” cowards chuckle as they keep their mouths firmly buttoned and their bigoted thoughts to their selves for fear of a punch or an uncomfortable lunch. Then there are the ones who tell you that they don’t agree with Clarkson but you have to admit that he’s a great/brilliant/thrilling writer. I don’t have to admit shit and that’s definitely shit.
Read Clarkson’s column on any given week and you’ll witness a man who is not even phoning it in. That implies too much effort. This is a man faxing it in; stuck firmly in the nineties, wearing denim from the 80s, with attitudes that started to smell bad in the seventies. Selective quoting is generally among Clarkson’s more minor crimes but the most recent example is an egregious one, particularly because he had to reach back nearly 15 years to speed past the point in pursuit of his latest spurious argument.
In his 2009 show If You’d Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One, Stewart Lee delivered a long and brutal routine about Top Gear and its most famous trio of hosts — Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond. It’s that riff that Clarkson dug out to prop up the premise of his column this week:
As we know, British comedy has been going through a bit of a rough patch in recent times. Not that long ago, we had The Fast Show, and Harry & Paul, and The Thick of It, and as a result, we sort of knew we were the funniest people in the world.
But then it all stopped, mainly because the laughter industry was hijacked by the far left, whose comedy role models were Stalin, Mao Zedong and the old rib-tickler himself, Jeremy “funny-bone” Corbyn.
This had an immediate effect. I made observations about bleeding-heart liberals, and I was fed to the wolves. Whereas Stewart Lee said, after Richard Hammond nearly died in his jet-car crash: “I wish that his head had rolled off in front of his wife and that a jagged piece of metal debris from the car had got stuck in his eye and blinded him.” And what did he get? Yup, a pat on the back from the Arthur Scargill appreciation society.
Let’s break down those three paragraphs. Clarkson opens with an opinion gussied up as a fact (“…British comedy has been going through a bit of a rough patch…”), pulling three examples of successful comedies from the past — The Fast Show, which ended its original run in 1997, and Harry & Paul and The Thick of It both of which finished in 2012 to ‘prove’ his argument. The implication is that no good UK comedies have been broadcast since the early days of the Coalition government.
That claim can be easily disproved by recalling This Country (BBC, 2017 - 2020); Derry Girls (Channel 4, 2018 - 2022); Ghosts (BBC, 2019 - 2023); Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4, 2011 — 2020); Mum (BBC, 2016 - 2019); Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4, 2018 - 2021); W1A (BBC, 2014 - 2017); Catastrophe (Channel 4, 2015 - 2019); Detectorists (BBC, 2014 - 2022); People Just Do Nothing (BBC, 2014 - 2018); and Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC, 2009 - 2016) to name just a few.
Clarkson then gives the reader more rhetoric dragged up as fact (“… the laughter industry was hijacked by the far left…”). Could it be that 14 years of Conservative-led government means that Tories and their media outriders are more subject to mockery than other political tribes? And during the Corbyn era, as Juliet Jacques writes, many of the UK’s ‘anti-establishment’ branded comedians focused much of their attention on the then-Labour leader rather than the government.
When Clarkson whines about “being fed to the wolves” for “[making] observations about bleeding-heart liberals”, it’s hard to know which of the controversies, scandals, and self-publicising spats he’s talking about. However, if it’s from the same period as Lee’s special, it’s probably Clarkson’s appearance on The One Show in 2012 when he responded to public sector strikes by saying:
I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they’ve got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.
Perhaps Clarkson claims 2012 was the year that comedy died because his hyperbolic rant on a light entertainment show wasn’t rewarded with the excited seal clapping he’d become accustomed to from sycophantic Top Gear studio audiences. Notice too that while he goes on to slice out a seemingly ‘shocking’ segment from Lee’s routine, he doesn’t include his own words in the column.
Stewart Lee plays a perpetually disappointed, egotistical, grandiose and dismissive version of himself on stage. ‘Stewart Lee’ on the mic is not the Stewart Lee who walks down the street. Jeremy Clarkson does not claim to be playing a character. Instead, he sells his opinions as authentic with the classic columnist’s promise of “telling it like it is”, a game that Lee effectively punctured in the Top Gear routine as:
Jeremy Clarkson with his outrageously politically incorrect opinions which he has every week… to a deadline in The Sunday Times… I think he’s either an idiot or a genius. He’s either an idiot who actually believes all the badly researched, lying, offensive shit he says, or he’s a genius, who’s worked out exactly the most accurate way to annoy me.
Clarkson wants Sunday Times readers to believe that Lee — rather than ‘Stewart Lee’ — simply ranted Grand Guignol fantasies about Hammond without any reason beyond cruelty. He’s following in the footsteps of the Daily Mail in 2009 when it asked with mock incredulity What prompted comedian's tirade against old schoolmate Richard Hammond? The answer — specifically included for the Mail — is in Lee’s original routine:
I don’t really think Richard Hammond should die. What I was doing there, as everyone here in this room now understands, just in case there’s anyone from the Mail on Sunday watching this, is I was using an exaggerated form of the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear to satirise the rhetoric and the implied values of Top Gear. And it is a shame to have to break character and explain that. But hopefully, it will save you a long, tedious exchange of emails.
Not only did that comic clarification fail to prevent the “tedious exchange of emails” at the time, 14 years later, Clarkson is pretending it never happened to paint himself as a victim of Lee’s vitriol rather than a subject of satire framed in his own terms.
He goes on to dredge up a story from 2009 and 2012:
There was much the same reaction when Frankie Boyle said that when the swimmer Rebecca Adlington looks in a mirror it must be like she’s looking at a reflection of herself in the back of a spoon. Was he a misogynistic bastard? No, because he was a socialist.
In fact, BBC News, The Evening Standard, Guardian, Independent, Daily Record, and many other outlets covered Boyle’s jibe and he was rebuked by BBC executives and the BBC Trust. Clarkson and his editors are assuming — probably rightly — that most readers won’t remember the details of the incident and will assume Clarkson is right because his framing backs their existing assumptions.
Clarkson complains that Have I Got News For You “used to be very funny because it had no agenda” which is almost unintentionally funny enough to provoke a snort. The reason HIGNFY isn’t very funny any more is because it’s smug, self-satisfied, and as thoroughly establishment as the figures it mocks. It always had an agenda; political comedy can’t be political without one.
The reason Clarkson likes the American comics he names (Bill Burr; Louis CK, Shane Gillis) and the one British performer (Finn Taylor) who he nominates as the great white hope for his oh-so-familiar shock tactics, is that he discerns an agenda that he agrees with in their material. As Britain’s foremost professional pub bore, Clarkson’s views on comedy belong to the "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like’ school of criticism, or as Lee writes in his response to this weekend’s column:
Allowing an amateur arts critic like Clarkson to just dip into it to try and fill up space makes about as much sense as sending me, a man who has driven second-hand minis all his life, to review a performance car.
The real joke here is that Clarkson and his editors think that a deliberately deceptive objection to an almost 15-year-old comedy routine, balanced on a review of the British comedy scene that hasn’t been updated since his pal Cameron was Prime Minister, makes for a fresh take in 2024.
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