Jeremy Clarkson (Credit: Getty images)
20 December 2022
There is always a tipping point in Twitterstorms. A moment at which the digital hysteria over something somebody said becomes far more offensive, and far more dangerous, than what that person said.
You can feel when it happens, when the shift takes place, when it is the behaviour of the howling mob that becomes the truly shameful and anti-social thing, far more than the utterance that so outraged the mob in the first place.
We have reached this tipping point, already, in the fury over Jeremy Clarkson’s comments about Meghan Markle. The clamour for Clarkson’s head is now a far graver insult to decency and liberty than the thing Clarkson himself wrote in the Sun.
I don’t like what Clarkson wrote, for the record. I’m no fan of Meghan Markle but fantasising about marching her naked through the streets so that people can throw poo at her – as Clarkson did in his column on Friday – strikes me as tasteless.
Clarkson said he loathes Meghan on a ‘cellular level’. He hates her even more than Rose West, he said. In a seemingly jokey nod to Game of Thrones, he said he’s ‘dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, “Shame!” and throw lumps of excrement at her’.
I don’t like what Clarkson wrote, for the record
It’s about as near to the knuckle as you can get. Yet we owe it to reason to assess Clarkson’s column dispassionately. It seems pretty clear to me that he was using exaggeration and hyperbole for comic effect. Does anyone really believe that Clarkson thinks Meghan Markle is a worse human being than Rose West? Come on. He’s joking. I have a friend who really hates cats who once said: ‘I’d rather live with Rose West than a cat.’ This is like that. Not a statement of truth but an absurdly inflated claim designed to raise a laugh. (Good luck with that in 2022, Jeremy.)
As for parading Meghan through the streets so that an excrement-throwing mob can shout ‘Shame!’ at her; if you think Clarkson really wants to do that, then I suggest you acquaint yourself with this thing human beings call comedy. There you will discover that people say all kinds of outrageous things – about politicians, royals, celebs, sometimes entire social groups – for fun. For a laugh. The aim is not to incite a mob to do something wicked but to make an audience chuckle at a wicked idea. That’s all.
So Jo Brand, when she quipped on Radio 4 a couple of years ago about throwing battery acid at right-wing politicians, was not suggesting people should actually do that. Brand herself would never do such a terrible, criminal thing. She was joking! It’s the same with Clarkson. He doesn’t want people to throw crap at the Duchess of Sussex. It’s a joke.
The double standards are extraordinary, aren’t they? The very people who want Clarkson expelled from polite society are probably Jo Brand fans. There’s a powerful whiff of snobbery here. Brand made her acid joke on Radio 4, whose audience tends to be middle-class and university-educated, while Clarkson’s gag appeared in the Sun, whose readership includes huge numbers of working-class people. And we can’t have those kinds of people, the dim gammon, hearing edgy jokes, can we?
Those who are damning Clarkson’s column as an incitement to violence are exposing their own classism. The idea that Sun readers will not know Clarkson was joking, and will start storing up their excrement for the coming shaming of Meghan Markle, is a vile calumny against tabloid readers. Newsflash to the cultural elites: working-class people understand humour.
There is no room for double standards in freedom of speech. We must defend everyone’s right to crack shocking jokes, from Jo Brand to Jeremy Clarkson, from Guardianistas making witticisms on Radio 4 to Roy Chubby Brown slaying identity taboos in working men’s clubs. The freedom of humour is either enjoyed by all or by none at all.
What I’m most worried about now is the incitement to censorship. Now that incitement is real. The mobbing of Clarkson has morphed into a crusade against press freedom. The plummy tyrants of Stop Funding Hate are encouraging their followers to demand that businesses stop advertising in the Sun. More than 6,000 complaints have been made to the press regulator Ipso. Even politicians are sticking their beaks in. Sadiq Khan says Clarkson’s column was ‘no joke’. His words were ‘dangerous and inexcusable’, says Khan.
What’s inexcusable, Sadiq, is a politician making underhand decrees about what the press should and shouldn’t publish. I am far more offended by Khan’s seeming desire to cleanse the press of ideas he disapproves of than I am by Clarkson’s obvious fantasy about Meghan Markle. This is that Twitterstorm tipping point, where the censorious frenzy becomes the really perilous thing.
I feel I must remind the Clarkson-haters that inflammatory insults against royal personages are the stuff freedom of speech is built on. It is no exaggeration to say that it was earlier generations’ temerity to make rude and foul jokes about royals that expanded freedom for us all. Consider John Wilkes, the 18th-century radical journalist whose pamphlets satirising the hell out of the sex lives and pompous antics of Kings, Lords and Ladies became the great cause celebre of liberty in the modern era.
When Wilkes was imprisoned in the Tower for writing a stinging assault on George III, vast swathes of the public rallied behind the banner ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ and demanded not only his release but also greater political and religious freedom for everybody. Today’s Clarkson-bashers, horrified that this tabloid bloke has made a joke about a duchess, would have been the other side. They’d have been in the anti-Wilkes camp, repulsed by this hack’s vile insults against royalty, frenetically demanding his punishment.
May I humbly suggest that once you have acquainted yourself with comedy, you acquaint yourself with a book titled John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, wherein you will discover that crude humour is the foundation stone of the freedoms you enjoy today. You’re welcome.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Comment by Nelle- Yes I understand this was an attempt at a joke but for me it is in poor form but having said that this woman annoys me no end-everywhere you go she is there whining and wailing about ‘poor me’ when she lives a life of privilege -with $100 million being the cost of denigrating her husband’s family I feel this is less than classy and right down there with the trailer trash-if she had a pinch of decency she would get over this nonsense and spend a little of that $100 million on the many people in need-she wouldn’t have to look far either California is full of them- one can only pray that the tirade will soon be over because how much can to find to use as a bio-weapon without having to repeat-repeat