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TV & Radio

Top Gear comments ‘vulgar, but not a matter for the law’

Human rights chief bows out of ‘Top Gear’ row. By Luke Blackall

As the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips could be expected to respond to the ongoing row over the presenters of TopGear making remarks about “feckless” and “lazy” Mexicans.

But yesterday Mr Phillips refused to be drawn into the row, on the basis that itwas just a ruse to promote an already well-promoted show and its wellpromoted presenter. “Iamnot going to get hot under the collar about schoolboy provocation which frankly is organised so that we can get in to a ruck and sell more DVDs for Jeremy Clarkson,” he said. “Jeremy is rich enough. I don’t need to get into that. I am bothered about what he said. It’s juvenile, it’s vulgar, it’s unacceptable, but that’s for broadcasters and columnists to argue about. It’s not for the law.”

While the broadcasters and columnists argue over yet another furore, and another BBC spokesperson steps forward to make an apology, one could see why the corporation’s money men would berejoicing that their biggest cash cow is garnering even more publicity. Top Gear is thought to be the BBC’s most profitable programme. While it is an undoubted success in UK, with an audience comfortably above five million and manyDVDs sold every year, the real money comes from its international appeal.

The show has an estimated global audience of 350 million. Turn ontheTV in a foreign hotel and you’re likely to find the three podges racing caravans round a track on the BBC World channel. Asathree-time guest on the show, Steve Coogan, pointed out this week: “Forget, the World Service; overseas, TopGearismore frequently the public face of the BBC.” It is the prized possession of BBC Worldwide, while BBC Worldwide itself is the prized possession of the BBC. Last year it announced profits of £145m, arise of 36 per cent, and its overall value was put at £1bn. One estimate suggested that Top Gear itself made £26m a year. At a time when the BBC and its licence fee are being criticised more than ever from a hostile press, it is keen to highlight the few areas it does turn a profit.

While the shock value of what has been said is evident, it’s hard to see a why there has beenanysurprise. Since the format of the programme was rejuvenated in 2002 with Clarkson at the helm, it has consistently courted controversy and the publicity that comes with it.

Stirrer-in-chief is Clarkson. Whether it’s “gay” cars, comments about truck drivers murdering prostitutes, or television executives’ obsession with getting “black Muslim lesbians” to front TV shows, he is never short of a controversial opinion. The comedian Stewart Lee has described the presenter’s views as “outrageous politically incorrect opinions, which he has for money”. But the celebrity publicist Mark Borkowski believes the show is now in danger of losing its way, as well as its audience, as the presenters appear to be “running out of clever ideas”. “This type is the wrong type of publicity,” he said. “There’s arrogance at being untouchable, where you go into that space of thinking you’re above the law. “If you carry on behaving that way, you turn around one day and realise you have lost a lot of friends. The programme is a target now. When their audience starts to peak and decline, they’ll be a target even more so.”