Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Can TV presenters say what they like?

Following the recent arguments around representation of social groups in Eastenders and Come Fly with Me, which I covered in January, there have been more discussions of representation in the media, notably the Sky Sports sexist remarks incident, which led to the sacking of Andy Gray and the resignation of Richard Keys, followed by the Mexican car comments made by Top Gear presenters.

Though Gray and Keys tried to argue that their comments were meant as a joke, anyone who heard them would find this hard to believe, given the tone in which they were said. Gray in particular is known for the speed with which he criticises referees (often very unfairly, in my view) and this just seemed to take it one step further in suggesting that referee's assistant Sian Murray shouldn't have been there simply because she was female. Interestingly, evidence from Italy, where female officials at games are much more frequently seen, suggests that the accuracy of their decision-making is much higher than male officials- but you wouldn't expect Gray to know about that (or that he would believe it). The number of videos which suddenly emerged of the pair's sexist behaviour and attitudes in the days following the incident suggested not so much 'dark forces at work' as Keys called it, as people biding their time having had to put up with the pair and the unpleasant working atmosphere over a long period of time at Sky. The hilarious interview Keys gave to talksport radio, where he sounds like a cross between Alan Partridge and David Brent, gradually digging a deeper hole for himself as he attempts to apologise, hours before his resignation, is reproduced below.

Jeremy Clarkson's speech at the National Television Awards took a different view. he argued that it was all indeed harmless banter and that if the BBC had taken a similar line, he and his colleagues would have been sacked 100 times. He suggested that

"we've arrived at the stage now where you actually can be busted for heresy by thought, which is terrifying. You could think a thought and someone could sack you for it. While we try very hard on Top Gear not to be sexist, if a man wants to think that, then that's fine. You should be allowed to think what you want to."

The trouble is, that it's all very well for middle aged men to say they should have freedom of speech about whatever they want, but at whose expense? Insider comments from Sky suggested that Keys and Gray had effectively been sexist bullies at the studio for a long time and that women did not feel they could complain. maybe the same is true at Top Gear? Certainly, Steve Coogan thinks so. At the weekend, he wrote an extraordinarily damning piece for The Guardian, where he attacked the casual racism of the Top Gear trio. It is extraordinary because Coogan has been a guest on the show three times in the past and because of just how damning his comments were.

He described Jeremy as being like a school bully and argued that if the jokes about Mexicans had been substituted for Pakistanis or Jews, there is no way they would have got away with it. Coogan describes the comic writers he has worked with as a

"diverse, eclectic group of people with one common denominator: they could all defend and justify their comedy from a moral standpoint. They are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness. They mock pomposity and arrogance.

If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance. (whereas) With Top Gear it is three rich, middle-aged men laughing at poor Mexicans. Brave, groundbreaking stuff, eh?"

I agree with Coogan's argument- you should read it in full here- because Top Gear is not some minority programme with a tiny audience of like minded middle aged casual racists, but is actually one of the BBC's biggest programmes with a huge audience of young kids, who look up to these three. As Coogan says:

"The Lads have this strange notion that if they are being offensive it bestows on them a kind of anti-establishment aura of coolness; in fact, like their leather jackets and jeans, it is uber-conservative (which isn't cool).... Big viewing figures don't give you impunity – they carry responsibility. Start showing some, tuck your shirts in, be a bit funnier and we'll pretend it all never happened"

Judge for yourself!

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