DJ Taylor: Freedom's just another word for...

...being rude about Mexicans on 'Top Gear'. Meanwhile, teen sex scenes in the US version of 'Skins' have caused alarm

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All week long, in the wake of the Sky Sports sexism row, the air has been thick with the cries of middle-aged to elderly media men nervously justifying their right to freedom of speech. There has been talk of "banter" and its inherent salubrity.

Jeremy Clarkson, speaking backstage at that altogether desperate affair, the National Television Awards, struck an almost Miltonic note, when he warned of the dangers of people being punished for "heresy of thought ... you should be allowed to think what you think" Mr Clarkson grandly concluded.

Appropriately enough, Clarkson was implicated in last week's broadcasting row, when it was disclosed that the Mexican ambassador had filed a complaint over an edition of Top Gear in which its gallant presenters ascribed to a Mexican sports car various characteristics thought also to apply to the national psyche. According to Clarkson's colleague, Richard Hammond: "Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat." Not to be outdone, James May then described Mexican cuisine as "re-fried sick".

The really depressing thing about this little exercise in xenophobia is not that it deals in stereotypes that a child of 10 might hesitate to invoke, but the fundamental laziness of the mental attitudes involved. Is this the best that Hammond, with his prestigious education, his fabulous salary, and the resources of a mighty corporation at his elbow, can do? As for the idea that "you should be allowed to think what you think", well, it rather depends what you mean by thought.

***

Still with stereotypes, one of the great idées fixes of the modern age is the assumption that any right-wing politician is likely to be a dyed-in-the-wool Philistine for whom books, films and theatre are a poor substitute for the serious business of cutting welfare benefit and ordering people about. If the merest glance at recent British political history is enough to puncture this myth – Edward Heath conducting his choirs, Margaret Thatcher quoting Philip Larkin's poems to him when they met – there is still something comforting to the liberal literatteur in the thought that, while political power may be denied him, he can claim the moral superiority of a well-stocked mind.

This seemed the only conclusion worth drawing from last Wednesday's revelation that Yann Martel, Canadian author of the Booker-winning Life of Pi, below, has spent the last four years sending his favourite books to his Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the hope of enriching an apparently culture-free life. Having despatched a round hundred of these items, Mr Martel has given up, irked by the fact that Mr Harper appears neither to have read them or troubled to reply. "I can't understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind can understand life, people, the world," he told The Independent, adding that he was keen for people who had power over him to read because "their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares".

It is this kind of snootiness that gives highbrows a bad name. Virginia Woolf herself could not have been so patronising. Why should a disinclination to read debar you from understanding life, people and the world? And who is to say that Mr Harper's dreams are impoverished because he doesn't fancy Mr Martel's reading list? Curiously enough, all one's sympathies here are with the Canadian Prime Minister, whose aides probably have better things to do than deal with the latest paper dart winging in from Yann's library of the soul.

***

One of the oddest things about last week's news from Egypt was the British media's split reaction to it. Here, plainly, was an event of world significance, whose dramatic unravelling had captivated the TV and internet audience – not quite a Berlin Wall moment, but one with almost limitless implications for the Middle East and the world beyond.

Over on the news stands, alas, traditional demarcations applied, which is to say that the covers of the "quality" papers were aflame with reports from Tahrir Square, while the red tops ignored all overseas news. On Monday, the Daily Express was chuntering on about an EU plot to "hammer" the nation's pensioners, while the Mirror claimed that anarchists were targeting April's Royal Wedding. Come Wednesday, the talk was of raised petrol prices, Katie Price's divorce and some film she might or might not be appearing in.

Taxed with purblind indifference to "the real issues", a red-top editor would no doubt reply that his (or her) job was to give the people what they want. On the other hand, this did feel rather like filling the sports pages on the day after the FA Cup Final with reports from the World Trick Cycling Championships in Llandrindod Wells. And if the Middle East really does go up in flames, then those fuel prices that the Express worries about so much, will rise higher still.

***

Several commentators have noted the corking irony that attends America's outburst of moral panic over the racy young person's TV import Skins, and wondered why a country that nurtures the world's largest pornography industry can turn so fastidious over the sight of a teenage bottom or two going skinny-dipping. The toning down of Skins, for the benefit of shocked viewers in Nowhere, Nevada, is a fine example of that modern media double-think which allows gargantuan levels of licence in some areas while, in others, falls over itself to ensure interest groups, whose very existence is unproven, won't be offended.

In the second category, I recently filed a review of Julian Barnes's latest short story collection for the Financial Times. This began with an account of watching the late Beryl Bainbridge in conversation with Barnes at a literary festival, and included a reference to her having "perhaps taken a glass of wine ...." This was edited out. But who would have been offended had it stayed in? Dame Beryl's family? The organisers of the literary festival? In fact, Dame Beryl, as she confessed to me, had previously downed half a bottle of whisky in her hotel room. Curious to relate, you can say that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a credulous halfwit in virtually every newspaper in the land, but not that a distinguished novelist was drunk. But now, alas, I am sounding like Jeremy Clarkson.

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