Clarkson was not "joking", as some of his defenders are suggesting, when he suggested that striking public sector employees (with their "gilt-edged pensions") should be shot in front of their families. He was employing hyperbole, just as (to take another example) Paul Chambers was employing hyperbole when he Tweeted the remark that absurdly left him with a criminal record:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!
That was no more a bomb-threat than Clarkson's expression of exasperation with public-sector strikers is an incitement to murder, or a call of the introduction of capital punishment for members of Unison. It was Clarkson being Clarkson; doing what he's most handsomely paid for, which is amusing one section of the populace by winding up another. That the BBC even employs him is an acknowledgement on their part that the Licence Fee cannot be an entirely arbitrary tax. That there has to be a quid pro quo for all the Euro-propaganda and institutional anti-Toryism.
Although of course it would be naive to suggest that his many detractors don't also get their kicks from putting the boot into the motormouth. Twitterstorms aren't merely an expression of genuine self-righteous indignation, though there's always a large element of that. They're also fun for all concerned, a sort of right-on group hug.
From Peter Serafinowicz: So sad to hear the news about Jeremy Clarkson. He's still alive.
This is all good clean fun. And Serafinowicz is a comedian, so he was obviously joking. But it ceases to be fun when you start arguing, as public sector union UNISON is doing, that Clarkson deserves to be sacked and, if possible, prosecuted form his characteristic remarks. Here's an extract from their press release, put into the mouth of general secretary Dave Prentis:
Public sector workers and their families are utterly shocked by Jeremy Clarkson’s revolting comments. We know that many other licence fee payers share our concerns about his outrageous views. The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching – they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements. An apology is not enough - we are calling on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson immediately. Such disgusting statements have no place on our TV screens.
Jeremy Clarkson clearly needs a reminder of just who he is talking about when he calls for public sector workers to be shot in front of their families. Whilst he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together - they save others’ lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins – they deserve all our thanks – certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.
It's all there. The presumption that the union boss is capable of reading the minds of millions of people, many of whom - even if they did go on strike - will have been laughing. There's the "think-of-the-children" kneejerk - for we all know that children are incapable of recognising the nuances of English idiom. There's the hysterical characterisation of Clarkson's words, quite bereft of their context - "aggressive", "disgusting", "unbelievable abuse." There's the sentimental invocation of selfless, low-paid public employees - "they save others’ lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly" (some do, but others are employed sending out diversity monitoring questionnaires). There's the demand for instant dismissal.
Above all, there's the refusal to view things in any kind of proportion, the earnest literalism that characterises so much of officialdom in modern Britain. By rights Prentis (or his press officer) should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
Or as I wrote apropos the Twitter Joke Trial:
This is not about modern technology, but about the new threat to deep-seated English habits of mind. What has changed is officialdom's loss of a sense of proportion, or of their ability to use discretion and common-sense. That represents a more radical change than the coming of Internet. And the police, the CPS and the judges are on the leading edge of it. The old-fashioned traditionalist who doesn't get it is Paul Chambers, doing what comes naturally to almost any English person and finding himself in the kind of situation once described so eloquently by Kafka. Who wasn't English at all.
Jokes, light-hearted remarks, hyperbole, colourful language: such things are perceived as threats to the bureaucratic mind, and an example must be made of their perpetrators. Clarkson is not Paul Chambers, an unknown and powerless figure who can be pilloried with impunity. This row, indeed, is unlikely to do him much permanent damage. His popularity, as I suggested above, helps to justify the licence fee. He might even be described as a type of licensed rogue, empowered to keep the lower orders quiescent by saying what they'd like to say but would never dare. He's basically a safety-valve for the pent-up frustration that he articulates.
That said, he is lacking in self-awareness if he believes that while lollipop ladies are sitting pretty on gold-plated pensions while he - paid a huge amount of money to drone on about cars on BBC2 - has to "work for a living." Because he is, at least partly, a public sector worker himself. A significant chunk of his income comes from a flat-rate tax imposed on every household in the country, whether they want to watch him or not. He may not technically work for the state - but nor do employees of Serco and Capita, legal-aid solicitors or employees of fake charities technically work for the state, either. Or, for that matter, public-sector union leaders. There are many people in Britain who believe themselves to belong to the private sector who are in fact wholly dependent on the taxpayer to keep them in business.
I often wonder who exactly is paying all these taxes. And then I start thinking about the deficit, and conceive a sudden desire to go outside and shoot myself in front of my family.