Wednesday, 30 November 2011

What value a qualified apology?

The public sector strike was in full swing. I have been in two unions in my working life, NUPE which amalgamated with others to become UNISON, and AMMA which is now ATL. Both of them came out on strike on Wednesday. And I can understand why. It's tough to have your contribution to the economy rubbished (even though a day's strike apparently could cost £1/2 billion), and to hear yourself talked about as though you are not a tax-payer yourself. And it's tough to have the pension you've paid for all your working life shrink at a stroke.

Jeremy Clarkson, employed by the licence payer via the BBC, proceeded that evening at 7 o'clock to pontificate in his satirical way both about the strikes and oddly, in a week which had begun with the tragic suicide of the universally liked Welsh football manager, Gary Speed, he quipped about trains not stopping when someone commits suicide in front of them.

The press of course made a lot of his comments about shooting the strikers, which were in dubious taste but fairly characteristic Clarkson-babble. As often, he needlessly overegged the pudding, with adding "in front of their families", which demonstrated a juvenile lack of empathy in one so close to the establishment. When questioned about it the following afternoon, his response was typically bullish: "The BBC are not going to sack me and I am not going to apologise. What do you think I have done wrong?"

As complaints continued to flood in to the BBC, he was "persuaded" to make a statement of apology - which he did, sort of: "If the BBC and I have caused any offence, I am quite happy to apologise for it alongside them." But he insisted in his statement: "I didn't for a moment intend these remarks to be taken seriously - as I believe is clear if they're seen in context." I gather the wording was his, and, you'll notice it's one of those sorts of apology which implicitly puts the blame back on the person offended. This is a conditional apology using the word "if". A genuine apology is unconditional. "I apologise for the offence that my remarks caused." No "ifs" and no "buts". Just, "I'm sorry." The trouble is those words are usually blocked by our pride. Not only does Clarkson's apology contain an "if" and an implied "but", it also has another shifting of the blame, "If the BBC and I". I've puzzled over this. Is he saying that his remarks were scripted and editorially approved? Is he implying he was reading them off the autocue? It's hard to believe, but might possibly be the case. Perhaps he was referring to the sycophantic studio laughter that greeted his remarks. Otherwise it sounds rather like an errant schoolboy whining, "It wasn't just me, you know." 

However, I actually found his remarks about suicide even more disturbing. As someone commented on Facebook: "I too found his comments on the strikers bad enough, but it was compounded by his terrible comments about people who may have committed suicide by being knocked down by a train. His attitude was, 'Why should the train stop for that? Why should I be put out?!' His appalling attitude reflects the worship of self above everything else. It's sad to see a man with ability demean himself in such a way for some cheap laugh!" I felt strongly enough to send a complaint to the BBC, which I've done only once before.

"In the week of the highly publicised suicide of Gary Speed, Mr Clarkson's comments about trains not stopping when desperate people step in front of them showed an unbelievable level of crassness and insensitivity. Even if, as he seems to suggest, the context was jocular, there was simply no excuse for his comment. Suicide is always a tragic event, for the person who was sufficiently depressed to take their own life AND for their family and friends. To make light of it is inexcusable; to make light of it this week and on prime-time television on an all-age magazine show was beyond comprehension. I was glad that an apology was made on the show by Matt Baker. As far as I'm aware, Mr Clarkson, whilst half apologising for his remarks about the strikers, has issued no apology to those bereaved by suicide or to those who have attempted it or to the train-drivers often traumatised by the experience of contributing to the death of another human being. As a licence payer who, I understand, contributes to his 7-figure salary, I'd ask the BBC to consider Mr Clarkson's position, as I suspect he won't do it for himself. The BBC is bigger than Top Gear. The very least the management should insist on is an UNQUALIFIED (i.e. no 'ifs' and 'buts') apology. Thank you."

Maybe it was an overreaction. Someone else commented: "WHY TAKE CLARKSON SERIOUSLY? HE IS JUST A BIG OVER-EXCITED KID , AND NOTHING MUCH HE SAYS IS WORTH COMMENT. PERHAPS IT IS LOOK-AT-ME PUBLICITY." I'm sure it was an attempt to get publicity. But actually he's a bit older than a kid, and he ought to have known better. More than 21,000 people thought so too. 

Jane tells me to ignore him and deny him the oxygen of publicity - and she's right of course - but I feel better to have got it off my chest! 

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