How BBC bosses and Jeremy Clarkson are gearing up for this week's investigation
Despite the devastation of Vanuatu, the mystery surrounding Putin, the merits of Ed Miliband's second kitchen, the implications of Grant Shapps' nom de plume or even George Osborne's pre-election budget, there's one story guaranteed to ride high on this week's news agenda. Yes, it's Jeremy Clarkson and an almost papal-style wait to see whether by week's end there will be black or white smoke wafting above the BBC's central London equivalent of the Vatican.
Suspended Jeremy Clarkson faces a BBC investigation
With around a million people who've backed an online 'Save Jeremy' petition praying for the smoke trail to be white, the cardinals within the BBC are certainly caught on the horns of a dilemma. A million petitioners is no small lobby, even if the anti-Clarkson faction can counter it's still only a fifth of those who regularly tune in to worship at the altar of Top Gear and a tiny fraction of the UK's TV-viewing public.
Whispers from inside the BBC continue to insist that influential director of television, Danny Cohen, is fanning the flames of a black smoke message that would effectively signify that Top Gear's mercurial, maverick frontman is toast. But according to those same whispers, director general Lord Hall, an avowed Clarkson admirer, is still looking for a formula that keeps him on board.
'Friends' of Jeremy Clarkson have been hinting over the weekend that he's set to walk away from the BBC anyway and blame his relationship with Danny Cohen, among others, for his 'sense of disillusion'. But my information is that Clarkson isn't so disillusioned that he's convinced his BBC career is over and that he's determined to fight his corner at this week's inquiry led by Ken MacQuarrie, head of BBC Scotland, rather than, as some have predicted, quit beforehand.
As one source close to Clarkson told me: “Jeremy isn't particularly optimistic about the outcome of the inquiry, but he's not resigned to it going against him either and he's reserving his position until he's at least had the opportunity to give his side of the story.”
Despite Lord Hall's high regard for Clarkson's talent (doubtless fuelled, too, by the fact that Top Gear is the BBC's biggest single global cash cow, shown in almost 200 countries, watched by 350 million people and worth over £50m a year to the corporation), the director general knows he's in a tricky position. Not least because, in the wake of the Savile scandal and the BBC's mishandling of that crisis, new guidelines were laid down on respect for colleagues and standards of behaviour expected of both staff and freelances.
Those guidelines, introduced after an internal inquiry led by Dinah Rose QC, probably didn't envisage a scenario where a multi-millionaire freelance presenter stands accused of physically and verbally abusing a much humbler staffer in a hot food row that's inevitably been dubbed 'SteakGate'. Without doubt, the trade unions in the BBC will be watching the inquiry closely and it was significant that Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of the broadcast union Bectu, warned over the weekend that the post-Savile guidelines meant the corporation couldn't 'wash its dirty linen in private'.
The spectre of Savile reared its head again on Sunday when a 'senior BBC executive' seemingly compared the Clarkson crisis to the Savile case in a front-page briefing to the Mail on Sunday. It was a bizarre comparison that, understandably, outraged the Clarkson camp. As one close friend of the presenter put it to me: “The only thing that the general public associate with Jimmy Savile now is child sex abuse. And that's one thing even Jeremy's biggest enemies within the BBC haven't dared to suggest. For the record, Jeremy regards Savile as a vile human being and this apparent briefing to the Mail on Sunday has sickened him.”
What that BBC briefing to the Mail on Sunday was – however crassly and clumsily – meant to do was to point up that Clarkson, like Savile, was the beneficiary of powerful friends ever eager to sing his praises while ignoring his faults. The primary target was clearly David Cameron whose judgement is open to question after he quickly stepped before the TV cameras to publicly defend his celebrity constituent and Chipping Norton set chum.
It's certainly reasonable to ask whether a prime minister who is either unwilling or too busy to take part in a TV general election head-to-head with a bloke called Ed should have found time to extol the virtues of the gogglebox's most famous petrolhead. Or, come to that, to treat us to the knowledge that his kids will be 'heartbroken' if Clarkson gets the boot from Top Gear.
By engaging his mouth rather than his brain over Top Gear, the prime minister has made himself a hostage to potential misfortune in search of popularity. With the shadow of his own Bullingdon Club past lurking in many minds, what message does David Cameron's support send out if Jeremy Clarkson is proven to have called junior colleague Oisin Tymon a 'lazy Irish c**t' before manhandling him to the extent his lip was split and he required treatment at A&E? That a powerful figure can bully and humiliate a workmate with physical and verbal abuse and get away with it by virtue of their fame and fortune?
As it happens, a close family friend is a young producer who has worked in TV and on major movies, and she has some sympathy for Jeremy Clarkson. She found it 'amateur' that the production team for a hugely-successful show like Top Gear failed to ensure that a hot meal was available when 'the talent' arrived from a long day's shoot. Especially when the BBC had booked out a luxury hotel.
This was her take on Steakgate: "You should simply have bribed the chef to stay on, laid it hard on the manager to make sure that happened rather than risk the wrath of your stars. To that extent I think Jeremy was fully entitled to moan about the lack of a proper hot meal – although nothing can really excuse his behaviour if the most extreme reports of his reaction turn out to be accurate."
If the allegations against Jeremy Clarkson are true, it's hard to imagine that there are many workplace environments where the sack wouldn't be the likeliest outcome and that, to be fair, is the huge dilemma facing the BBC this week, however vocal those one million 'Save Jeremy' online petitioners may be. Their cause hasn't been helped, either, by the moronic tendency on cyberspace who have been issuing death threats against producer Tymon and his family.
There can be no doubt that Jeremy Clarkson is a 'clever and funny broadcaster', as well as a fine, witty writer, whether or not you share his views. But 'Steakgate' takes us down a different road to arguments over whether Clarkson is guilty of the dodgy double entendre, or arguably racist and xenophobic remarks onscreen. What's at steak (sorry stake) here is more than a case of a star in a very expensive fracas, but a high-profile test of what's acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
And that's why the prime minister would have been better served biting his tongue rather than rushing to air a hasty kneejerk soundbite in support of his very famous crony.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and PR consultant who has previous edited the Sunday Mirror and been deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and News of the World.