First up, the comments were atrocious, offensive, ill-judged and plain daft. When Jeremy Clarkson said on the BBC’s One Show that striking public sector workers should be taken out and “executed in front of their families”, even the presenters (the dancing Welsh one and harmless, smiley Geordie one) had the wherewithal to look embarrassed, in spite of loud guffaws from the out-of-shot production team. What was Clarkson thinking?
We all know that Jeremy Clarkson makes a ridiculous amount of money pushing the boundaries of good taste on prime-time telly and in newspaper columns. Most people know that most of what he says should be taken with a huge dose of salt. That was obviously the spirit in which he meant the strike comments to be taken, even if he missed the mark.
He shouldn’t have been surprised that in the midst of an increasingly polarised debate over pensions and the nation’s crippled finances, that the sorts of people who take time out of their day to formally complain to the BBC about content, would do so in their droves the second he put a foot wrong.
Things have gone further though. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of public workers’ union UNISON thinks the Clarkson faux pas may be worthy of legal action and referral to the police. Seriously?
At yesterday’s PMQs, David Cameron branded Ed Miliband’s response to the strikes “left wing”. What sounds, at first encounter, an ineffectual debating point when levelled at a Labour leader and proud son of a Marxist sociologist, somehow comes across as insinuating and pejorative in the current context. His implication was that those striking or supporting the strikes are ideologically aligned to the “loony left” of old, ignorant of economic reality, and unable to take a joke.
Yes, this is a gross stereotype, but it’s one that Cameron knew would resonate – unfairly or not – with a large proportion of a clear majority in the UK: those in the private sector who turned up at work yesterday as normal, or who had to take annual leave to look after their children while teachers tried to protect their pensions.
By reacting so stridently to flippancy by a TV presenter like Jeremy Clarkson, UNISON is going for the wrong target. Sure, Prentis should have acknowledged the inanity of the comments, but he should have risen above them and engaged instead with combating the ideas and preconceptions that informed Clarkson’s remarks. Instead, UNISON has over-reacted, suggesting that it takes Clarkson’s views seriously, while letting the government off the hook by attacking and demonising a celebrity who revels in the publicity that such rants generate.
Clarkson should get a grip, but at the end of the day his opinion really doesn’t matter; it will not materially affect true substance of the public sector pension debate in any way.
It’s UNISON that needs to step back and carefully consider how it comes across as it vies for the sympathies of the public in the on-going political battle. Allowing that aim to be side-tracked by a Jeremy Clarkson rant is just pointless headline-grabbing. It will do nothing to sway the debate and they should move on.