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March 15th, 2015

Commercial ‘Push’ vs Public Service ‘Pull’ – Why The BBC Must Pull The Plug On Clarkson

Written by Paul Maidment

The petition is even called ‘Freedom To Fracas’. As I type, almost 1 million people have signed said petition to keep Jeremy Clarkson in situ on the popular show Top Gear. By definition, folk believe that lamping / hitting / indulging in a scuffle or fracas with someone is acceptable and that his removal from their beloved Top Gear would be just awful. If you extend that thought, one must assume that each individual who has signed the petition believes that if they themselves punched someone at their own place of work and were then fired, that would be wholly wrong. To my mind, this is the bottom line argument and Clarkson surely therefore cannot stay. But let’s put this to one side and look at the wider question – the question that Danny Cohen and co are no doubt thinking about this rainy Mother’s Day; namely does the BBC fulfil its public service remit or be swayed by commercial ‘inevitabilities’?

Many moons ago the BBC Worldwide Library Sales team – of which I was one – began to work with other broadcasters to look at how the Tope Gear programme might work as an international property. This was early doors in terms of what is now standard TV format practice – find a hit in one country and then either sell it overseas or produce a localised version. The Library Sales gang generated some good revenue which probably reached beyond its core remit and, after a while, the programme sales team realised what a jolly good idea this was and the rest is history.

BBC Worldwide has done a brilliant job with the Top Gear and other such high profile brands – although I would venture to say that it has maybe become overly reliant on the show. Top Gear now goes out in over 200 countries – I can’t even name that many countries – and generates a very significant proportion of BBC Worldwide’s annual sales and profit. Moreover, as a live entity, Top Gear is huge and I can only assume that the recently announced BBC-themed park to be opened in Kent is due to feature Clarkson and co heavily. As a former BBC Worldwide employee I can understand the concerns that Tim Davie and his team will be feeling right now – if Clarkson goes wither the show itself? I have no insight into BBC Worldwide’s position on this and what they are saying to the BBC but it would be a huge blow to both parties if this scenario plays out.

In the blue corner, the BBC will be torn. Pressure from the Clarkson-loving public, potential pressure from BBC Worldwide and pressure from a balance sheet sans Top Gear must be tempered by the ‘moral’ point I outlined in my opening. More so, the BBC is obviously tiptoeing through the world right now with an election coming up to add to the uncertainty around the future of the licence fee. Tony Hall himself came out a couple of weeks back to say that the BBC cannot rely on the licence fee forever and has to recognise that people now consume television in different ways. As a public service broadcaster the BBC has a duty of care and, whilst Jeremy Clarkson is not actually a member of staff, he has ‘history’ and does not serve the brand and thus the licence fee payers as he should. In today’s Sunday Times (where Clarkson has a couple of columns) the world’s worst food critic AA Gill slates the BBC for being weak and a bunch of ‘idiots’ for even contemplating Clarkson’s dismissal. His argument is a personal one and doesn’t focus on the bigger question. His viewpoint will though of course be echoed by many who love the show and love the man.

The BBC needs to make a decision quickly. Don’t go back on it and show strength. The commercial realities will be harsh – as they will for BBC Worldwide. But if the BBC stays true to its charter, fundamental beliefs and core values then it will find the right answer – Clarkson must go.

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