A PR stunt too far? How Jeremy Clarkson came to regret taking on the unions
Three days have passed since Jeremy Clarkson demanded the public execution of more than two million public sector workers – almost one 20th of the UK's entire adult population – in front of an even wider audience of their grief-stricken spouses and children.
But as talk of marches, walkouts, picket lines and pensions steadily slip from the water-cooler lexicon, the same cannot be said for the Top Gear presenter, whose remark on The One Show has almost come to surpass, in the public consciousness, the strikes themselves.
Amidst the extraordinary, if not entirely unpredictable, backlash there remains the suggestion that the whole thing may in fact have been an elaborate put-up job. Mr Clarkson, as has been widely reported, has a Christmas DVD to sell, and as Gypsies, the Welsh and the Mexican ambassador to London will attest, a bit of self-manufactured outrage would not be a new tactic.
Some have gone so far as to accuse the BBC of a "conspiracy", citing three reasons. One, the revelation that Clarkson agreed with One Show producers to make an extreme remark about the strikers, which he duly did. Two, that a question on the matter opened the BBC's Question Time debate on Thursday night, before the strikes themselves were discussed. And three, that the BBC's communications manager, Tara Davies, has been handling the issue, who is said to have a close working relationship with him.
But yesterday leading PR practitioners rejected the idea that Clarkson's remarks were another carefully managed stunt, and that the man himself, who has since disappeared to China, may already be really regretting his most recent outburst.
"Cynics might say it's a PR coup," said leading agent Mark Borkowski. "But [the BBC] have had 22,000 complaints, and have apologised very quickly. But it wasn't a very funny joke, and it was badly timed.
"It's really important to understand in modern PR terms what generates this sense of virality. It's got controversy, topicality, and schadenfreude. They make it a powerful story, but above all it's about timing. Clarkson will almost certainly regret it because of the abuse he's getting. Was it premeditated? Absolutely not."
The trade union Unison, which originally said it was seeking "urgent legal advice" regarding the comments and called for the presenter to be sacked, has since accepted his apology in good faith and called on him to spend a day with a poorly paid healthcare worker to see life from their perspective. He is yet to respond to the offer.
"If he agrees to scrub out bedpans for the day, well, he's damned if he does that," said Borkowski. "It's how far the Jeremy Clarkson cult can survive. There are a number of these things crashing in on him now. On this occasion it was more spontaneous, but then the timing, the day, the audience, that makes people more aggrieved. It's a question of whether people have had enough of him, but I certainly wouldn't be writing any obituaries for Jeremy Clarkson."
Celebrity publicist Max Clifford said: "I don't think it will make too much difference to his DVD sales. I don't know the man well enough but I doubt he gives a tinker's what anyone else thinks. He'll regret it if he loses his job, but that's not going to happen."