Confession: I have always been a fan of Jeremy Clarkson. I like his willingness to laugh at himself, and allow himself to be openly laughed at, while at the same time always saying what he thinks, regardless of what you think. To me, that is a good approach to life, but sometimes, it will get him into trouble – as it did, this week, when he wrote that Her Royal Highness Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, should be “made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her”.
As someone who, you may have noticed, does a bit of editing, my first thought on reading that was a simple one: How did it make its way past an editor?
One of your jobs as an editor at any outlet which publishes material for the public to read or watch is to protect your staff. Including protecting them from themselves. Nothing that gets published on this site, for example, has not first been reviewed by a member of the editorial team, for that very reason. When you write for a living, then it is a rock-solid certainty that you will get things wrong – maybe you will use a turn of phrase that will offend people, but didn’t realise it. Maybe you were angry when you were writing, and would have written something different if you’d taken an hour to calm down. Maybe your judgment was just off that day. Or maybe your joke just isn’t funny. But when a thing gets published, these days, it is published forever, and there is no taking it back.
When something like this happens, I am minded, as an editor myself, to blame the editors. Clarkson’s comments on Markle should not have been published, and the blame for the fact that they were published lies with his editor just as much as it lies with him. His is not the first case in recent years where the same can be said: Kevin Myers has been let down by editors in the past, and Mary Ellen Synon, years earlier, before him.
But, the remarks having been published, there is no un-publishing them. They were, in the words of one of my wiser correspondents, ungentlemanly, and the gentlemanly thing to do would be to apologise for them. This, Clarkson has not done, and he should.
All of that said, we are now in the middle of a good, fashionable, mob lynching. Clarkson’s own daughter felt pressured enough by that lynching to issue a denunciation which, to my mind, speaks ill of her character. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the support of your family, or at minimum, the public silence of your family, is most required when things go wrong. Not when they are going right. She had every right to tell her father privately that he is an ass. Saying it in public makes one wonder whether the Cock had crowed thrice, in her presence.
The other thing, which we should be used to by now, is the rank double standards applied to public commentary. In 2019, the novelist Philip Pullman wrote that, in his view, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, should be associated with the words “rope” and “nearest lamppost” – a clear implication that Johnson should be executed by public lynching. Mr. Pullman remains a member of polite society in good standing, because his particular brand of vitriol was directed at an acceptable target.
You will not have to search very far to find similar examples of progressive or liberal or feminist rhetorical excess: JK Rowling, for example, is regularly subjected to tirades just as offensive, and often more graphic, than anything directed at the Duchess of Sussex. And yet, those who wish to remain on the invite list to the correct events say nothing – up to and including the actors Rowling made into household names, who would sooner make snide remarks about her than condemn the hundreds of tweets threatening to rape her.
There is one rule, in other words, for the likes of Clarkson. And another rule entirely for the self-styled good and kind.
All of this, honestly, unleashes my inner culture warrior: You’re upset about Clarkson? Boo hoo, is what I want to say. Come back to me when you care about the stuff above.
But that gets us nowhere. Because the fact is, Clarkson got this one wrong. And that doesn’t make him any less likeable, or any less defendable, or mean that he should be cancelled or prosecuted or persecuted. It just means he got this one wrong, and he’s still the same person for good or ill as he was before he wrote that column.
We say we now live in a tolerant society. Perhaps, in a tolerant society, we might tolerate the fact that from time to time, people will get it wrong, and say silly things. Is that too much to ask?