Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson ‘deliberately used offensive racial term’

Ofcom says BBC breached broadcasting rules when it allowed presenter to use word ‘slope’ about Asian man in Burma special

Jeremy Clarkson’s biggest Top Gear controversies

Jeremy Clarkson, put on final warning by the BBC earlier this year, deliberately used a pejorative racial term to refer to an Asian man on BBC2’s Top Gear, causing offence without justification and breaching broadcasting rules.

Media regulator Ofcom ruled on Monday that Clarkson’s comment, during a Top Gear Burma special aired in March, was offensive and in breach of generally accepted standards required of broadcasters.

Following a string of controversies about offensive remarks, Clarkson was put on final warning by the BBC in May, after unbroadcast Top Gear footage of him mumbling the N-word during the rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny moe” was leaked.

However, the BBC indicated that it planned to take no further action over the Ofcom ruling on the Burma special, saying it had dealt with the matter and apologised at the time.

During this edition of Top Gear Clarkson and co-presenter Richard Hammond were filmed observing their handiwork in building a makeshift bridge across the river Kwai, on which an Asian man was seen walking towards them.

Clarkson said: “That is a proud moment ... but ... there is a slope on it.” Hammond said: “You are right ... [pointing] ... it is definitely higher on that side.”

Clarkson then narrated, over images of the bridge: “We decide to ignore the slope and move onto the opening ceremony.”

An Ofcom spokesman said: “After a thorough investigation, Ofcom has found the BBC breached broadcasting rules by including an offensive racial term in Top Gear, which was not justified by context. Jeremy Clarkson used the word ‘slope’ to refer both to an Asian man crossing a bridge, and the incline of the bridge. This was scripted in advance. The BBC failed to take the opportunity, either during filming or post-production, to check whether the word had the potential to offend viewers.

“All broadcasters must adhere to Ofcom’s rules on offensive material.”

Ofcom received two complaints from viewers who said that the word Clarkson used was an offensive racist term. The regulator took into account the BBC’s argument that the use of the term was intended as “an inoffensive, humorous play on words”.

However, Ofcom concluded that the word was capable of causing offence and the context did not justify its broadcast, finding Top Gear in breach of section 2.3 of the broadcasting code, which covers generally accepted standards.

“Ofcom’s view is that the word ‘slope’ is a pejorative racial term which has the potential to be offensive to Asian people specifically, as well as to viewers more generally,” the regulator said.

“Various nationalities have, at some point, been the subject of the presenters’ mockery during the history of this long running programme. The regular audience for this programme adjusts its expectations accordingly.

“In our view, however, in this case Jeremy Clarkson deliberately employed the offensive word to refer to the Asian person crossing the bridge as well as the camber of the bridge.”

Ofcom noted that the sequence was scripted in advance and clear consideration had been given to the use of that particular term, to formulate what was intended as a humorous word play around it.

“There was clearly an opportunity both during filming and post-production to research the word and reach a more considered view on whether it was ‘mere slang’ and had the potential to cause offence to viewers,” the regulator concluded.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “We dealt with this matter some time ago, the programme apologised at the time and explained the context, and we are now focusing on delivering another series of one of Britain’s best-loved shows.”

In May BBC director general Tony Hall saved Jeremy Clarkson from disciplinary action over his use of the N-word, overruling one of his top executives who wanted more than just a final warning for the Top Gear host.

Clarkson revealed in his column in the Sun that he had been “told by the BBC that if I make one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time, I will be sacked”. He subsequently apologised and asked for forgiveness and was called in to see Hall and Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television.

As the footage was not broadcast, Clarkson was not in breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines (which states that the word is “potentially extremely offensive”) or Ofcom’s code, but there is usually a general phrase in presenters’ contracts about not bringing the corporation into disrepute, and this element could have been the basis of any disciplinary action against him.

Hall is a non-executive director of the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and would no doubt have been aware of the financial implications of Clarkson being suspended or sacked from Top Gear. BBC Worldwide earns in excess of £150m in revenue annually from the show and related activities such as merchandising and live tours.

• This article was amended on 29 July 2014 to correct the spelling of "offfence" in the first paragraph

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Jason Deans

The GuardianTramp

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