Dad-dressing petrol head Jeremy Clarkson has rarely been out of the news in recent weeks. Unless you’ve been camping in an isolated corner of the Outer Hebrides with only some weather worn goats and a Nokia 3310 for company you won’t have failed to notice that the presenter, usually never far from controversy, has overstepped the line yet again and is now suspended from his presenting job with BBC’s Top Gear. This time, the result of a hot dinner-related ‘fracas’ with a producer.
Regardless of how you personally feel about Clarkson – or whether you, like me, think the rather delightful Richard Hammond would be a much easier on the eye (and not as handy with his fists) front for the show – what is interesting is the publicity that this situation has triggered. There are petitions to get Clarkson reinstated – and petitions to get him sacked. There are Twitter campaigns and hashtags, it’s even featured on the news, and everyone has an opinion on the subject, from former Stigs to people who desperately scramble for the remote at the mere hint of the Top Gear opening credits.
There have even been polls to determine where a ‘fracas’ might sit on the scale of other types of disturbance (it’s between a tussle and a brawl for those who are interested). To some Clarkson is a National Treasure who should be reinstated forthwith, to others he’s a cantankerous old man who may have gone too far this time in crossing the boundary of physical assault. Either way, everyone has been talking about it.
While Clarkson’s true-to-form casual attitude to the ‘fracas’ and bravado to the subsequent BBC action of suspending him might give the impression that no damage has really been done, PR-wise, many media experts would disagree. Social media monitoring firm Talkwalker, for example, found that positive online sentiment towards Clarkson, which had stood at 36.3% prior to the incident, dropped to just 9.7% after the incident was reported. Negative sentiment towards the presenter rose to 36.2%, from 22.5% the week before the reports and, interestingly, towards Top Gear itself negative sentiment increased from 20.6% to 37.6%. Of course the question is whether that would translate into a lower viewing audience (if the last two episodes in the series were actually going to be shown) but it does seem to pull the rug out from the old PR adage that any publicity is good publicity.
On the other side of the coin, the ‘fracas’ in the UK has provided a huge boost to the ratings of Top Gear France – the first episode of the show there was the best rated in the history of broadcaster RMC Découverte. Of course it should be highlighted that the French show is not presented by Jeremy Clarkson but by Philippe Lellouche who – as far as we know – is yet to allegedly punch anyone over a steak.
But back to the brand of Richard Hammond. Apart from the model/racing queen Jodie Kidd, no one else has been mooted as fit to fill Clarkson’s acid-wash active waist jeans as the show’s lead presenter. James May is far too laid back and seems comfortable to remain in the background, stroking a classic car, with his sweepy hair and floral shirts unruffled. But Hammond ‘the hamster’ has the right qualities- the right brand – he knows his stuff, the existing audience love him, he is engaging and his beseeching doe-eyes and cheeky smile will no doubt bring in a whole new audience (me).
Top Gear, one of the beeb’s biggest money spinners, isn’t going to disappear quietly, with or without its politically incorrect host, so it will be interesting to see how it comes back from the controversy, and indeed what the future is for Clarkson, who will no doubt use his considerable public influence to further his already stellar career.
This blog first appeared on Huffington Post.