Even his close friend James May describes Jeremy Clarkson as “a complete knob”. However by trying to follow protocol, the BBC risks being painted as the bad guys.
In the ever escalating row over whether Jeremy Clarkson did or didn’t punch his producer this week: the lack of any clear decision about where to go next, means the facts are quickly getting lost in an emotional media frenzy.
Whichever direction the BBC chooses, it is essential that they
– ACT FAST and MAKE A DECISION.
– TAKE THE HEAT OUT of the situation.
– BE CONSIDERATE that Clarkson has a level of Top Gear concept ownership and is well loved by a large audience.
– BE CONSIDERATE of the needs of their overseas broadcast customers.
– RETAIN GOOD WILL.
As I see it, the BBC has three choices – none of them ideal…
1. Sack Clarkson as you would any other employee found bullying in the workplace, especially given he’s on a very public “final warning”
2. Back down to pressure from a section of the public, and reinstate him.
3. Come to an agreement where this series of Top Gear is finished amicably, allowing Clarkson to go his own way when his contract ends this spring.
1. Sack Clarkson
The first option would in some ways be the easiest, and the BBC could demonstrate that it is an upright employer following best-practice employment policies. To do anything else would open up the BBC to legal challenges of double standards from anyone else it has ever sacked or sacks in the future. Not to follow this option would also be a humiliating loss of face given their previous statements. While there is a very vociferous public call to #BackClarkson, a recent poll by YouGov shows that 45% of the British public would support his sacking.
The BBC has already sold this series of Top Gear across the world, and stands to lose millions of pounds by not delivering on this commitment. However, it would likely have a case to claim against Jeremy Clarkson’s business, so this will not be the deciding factor.
2. Back Down
The second option would be the worst choice as I see it. Apart from losing face and looking weak, the fact is that, even if they did back down; and even if they don’t feel they’ve reached the end of the road with Clarkson; it is probable that trust has broken down to the point that he will leave anyway this summer. He’d certainly be snapped up quickly by competitors such as ITV or Sky.
3. Find a compromise
The third option – or middle way – appears to be the most sane. (as is often the case in these situations). It’s very difficult for a public body like BBC, bound by bureaucracy, to accommodate a maverick personality like Jeremy Clarkson. However, they can’t afford to sacrifice their star programme Top Gear on the alter of public policy and regulations.
Which leaves them with a very clear course of action:
A)- Agree with Mr Clarkson that the two parties have reached a point where they are no longer compatible and must part ways.
B)- Work together to ensure their mutual commitment to deliver the current series of Top Gear to the British public and to foreign broadcasters is completed.
C)- Let it be known publicly that an agreement has been reached and that Jeremy has chosen to leave Top Gear at the end of this series.
D)- Work hard to keep James May and Richard Hammond on board for at least the next season.
E)- Very Quickly declare a solution to finding a replacement presenter, possibly a series of “guest presenters”, as happened when Angus Deayton got sacked from “Have I got news for you”; or choosing a presenter who could bring a new dimension to the show without losing some of the irreverence of the current format. A strong female presenter could be a good solution.
So, whichever option they choose, Jeremy Clarkson is set to depart the BBC.
If they get this right, then the BBC will be recognised as making a regrettable but responsible decision, will retain the goodwill of the general public for Top Gear, and the confidence of its overseas broadcast customers. In the meantime, Jeremy Clarkson may discover that the BBC and Top Gear institutions are much more loved than any individual presenter.
My fear for the BBC is that they will analyse and agonise, trying to take a decision through several layers of committee meetings and legal reviews; by which time any chance to save the current series will be passed. Clarkson will have abandoned them anyway; and they will have a competitor to Top Gear featuring Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May setting up in an ITV studio just down the road.
Chris Collis is an award winning Chartered Marketer and Director of independent consultancy Marketing Walk.