The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) has upheld complaints that Jeremy Clarkson’s comments earlier this year about people with facial growths were ‘offensive’.
In an episode of Top Gear, Clarkson had joked ‘You know sometimes you meet somebody who's got a growth on their face and it's actually bigger than their face?’, likened the shape of a Toyota Prius campervan to someone with ‘growths on their face’ and compared it to meeting a person with a facial disfigurement for the first time: ‘not a car that you could talk to at a party unless you were looking at something else’. The ESC ruled the remarks ‘played on a stereotypically negative reaction to facial disfigurement’ and had broken editorial guidelines on harm and offence.
This is not the first time Clarkson has got into trouble for offensive remarks, but his career continues to flourish, like a well kept rose garden or a case of nits. Clarkson earned more than £3m for his involvement with Top Gear in the last financial year through Bedder 6, the company created by Clarkson and Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman. He recently sold his stake in the company to BBC Worldwide in a multimillion-pound deal. Clarkson earns and makes mega bucks, which possibly makes him the BBC 2 equivalent of Cbeebies’ money spinner Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble), only grumpier and less shaggable.
I probably should have said at the outset that I have a facial disfigurement. I know, big shock, because you never would have guessed from my profile picture. I also know the charity that made one of the complaints. So unsurprisingly I am biased. Indeed, I couldn’t be more biased against Jeremy Clarkson if I was a Toyota Prius campervan, a bicycle, or an ex-wife.
When I saw the ‘facial growths’ episode, I gasped – not just at the jokes but also at the laughter from the audience - and thought of all the people I have met over the years who have facial growths through conditions such as Neurofibromatosis. I hoped they would not have to spend the rest of the week dealing with the stares and comments of over enthusiastic Top Gear viewers.
When it comes to the subject of jokes and disability (and I include severe disfigurement under this term), there are generally two schools of thought.
The first school of thought says: You should never make jokes about disabled people because after children, the elderly, and badgers, they are the most vulnerable of our society and should be protected from everything!
The other school of thought says: It’s free speech and we live in a democracy, so suck it up!
I understand both schools of thought. On the one hand, I’ve experienced verbal abuse and intimidation and all because I have a chin so big, it enters a room five minutes before the rest of me. On the other hand, I’m a humanist and I know that many people with religious beliefs would be offended by some of the comedies I enjoy which gently mock religion. Though as far as I’m aware, no Irish Catholic priests have yet been assaulted because their attacker spent the weekend bingeing on a Father Ted DVD boxset.
But being in a funny-looking minority means that I am hypersensitive to jokes about disability. We’re expected to just laugh it off. We’re told as children to repeat that affirmation ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’, but we learn pretty quickly that that’s not true. Because when you look different, having people do nasty things, say nasty things, take the piss or just laugh at you as you walk past can be equally painful experiences.
The reason why people like Clarkson bring out my inner Mary Whitehouse (who lies dormant within me, like the herpes simplex virus) is because it’s not a fair fight. There’s no balance. We see able-bodied comedians making jokes about disabled people on TV but we don’t see disabled comedians making jokes back at them. Well, we did on Channel 4 during the Paralympics on The Last Leg with Adam Hills, which was funny and irreverent. It even partly rehabilitated guest Jimmy Carr, who had previously made a joke about the Paralympics which hadn’t gone down too well with injured soldiers. (Alas Frankie Boyle is beyond rehabilitation. He could fall in love with Susan Boyle, bring out a charity duet of Especially For You with all the proceeds going to Mencap, and I’d still find him suspicious.)
It was a refreshing change and I hope it won’t be till Rio in 2016 that we see disabled comedians on a high profile programme again. After all, if news programmes can invite disabled comedians like Francesca Martinez to comment on the Paralympics, why can’t panel shows invite them on to be funny?
It’s so rare to see a disabled comedian on TV that ‘token disabled comedian’ slots don’t even exist yet. Perhaps it’s time to consider another school of thought – disabled comedians can be funny too.