I’m probably going to stir up a whole heap of trouble for myself in revisiting this topic, but since I posted my initial thoughts on the Jeremy Clarkson/Oisin Tymon “fracas” last week I’ve received a lot of comment and feedback: Some positive, some interesting and in a couple of cases some downright hostile comments. Even if people disagreed with my assessment of the incident most people entered into the spirit of friendly debate.
But there were a couple of exceptions, and I’m not going to name and shame them except to say that they’re reaction was an indicator of how this story has had many twists and turns and how people reacted to it.
I’ve been accused or either endorsing or supporting Clarkson’s actions. To clarify, I do not endorse them at all and I don’t think he was right to hit someone. What I did was attempt to put his actions into context. I could see things in the story that rang alarm bells in me; bells that relate to my experience as a film industry professional. For the record, I didn’t sign the petition to re-instate him to Top Gear because that petition felt too much like a pardon instead of a fair judgement. Nor did I sign the counter-petition to have him sacked as I felt that was condemning the man without hearing all the facts.
As it was, over the next few days I got drawn more and more into the story. I read lots in the news and I got feedback from people in the BBC and TV industry as well. At one point I felt like David Hemmings in Blow Up or Daniel Craig in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as I tried to put the bits of information into a sequence that made sense. What was emerging was a tale of a frustrated and worn out star who had felt let down by his producer and that something inside of him snapped. That might not be the actual truth, but that was the version I was discovering through investigation.
The problem I encountered was that the narrative was changing constantly over the week. Newspapers, blogs, online journals and news sources were morphing the story into a variety of different ways. At its most crude, one version has a drunken Clarkson who had propped up a bar for 3 hours after a not so tiring day just letting fly at his producer after being turned down for food. Clarkson then fires off a 40 minute tirade of shouting and swearing at Oisin Tymon before punching him and causing serious damage. The Daily Telegraph went more or less along this line but their sources for this version of events seemed to consist mostly of hearsay and gleaning the internet. The Daily Mail’s online reportage was strange to read: You’d read the story initially and get a set version of events which was then altered subtly and not so subtly as the days went on. So instead of getting updated stories one after the other as information came in, you’d get the same story with the same byline but with one paragraph or sentence changed.
You might think that two newspapers with traditional Conservative leanings would back Clarkson over the lefty BBC and it’s shake n’ bake producers but no, the Telegraph and Mail were prepared to run stories that painted the man in the most negative light they could. When, over the weekend, The Times printed an article by A.A. Gill (a long time friend of Clarkson’s) which went a lot further than me in putting Clarkson’s antics into some kind of context, it became clear that this wasn’t about left vs right, or how popular or hated Clarkson is…instead it was Murdoch press v non-Murdoch rivals. Clarkson, who has a column in The Sunday Times, works for the enemy: You choose whether that’s the BBC or the Sunday Times.
The Mail’s online coverage had Clarkson initially trying to order Steak and Chips for dinner. Then, a couple of days later, it became a demand for Steak and Potatoes Dauphinoise. The Mail hinted at some kind of rock star behaviour by Clarkson for ordering something airy-fairy but when you think about it, that’s twisting the facts: Clarkson ordered that meal because it was on the menu.
Likewise the story of him shouting and screaming at Oisin Tymon for 40 minutes doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny either. Imagine shouting at someone for that amount of time, in a hotel, and someone from the management doesn’t intervene or call the police. If Clarkson was shouting and swearing in front of staff and patrons for 40 minutes you have to wonder what everyone else was doing. No one thought to intervene? No one’s reaching for a phone, dialling 999 and going “Clarkson going postal, come quickly!” before holding up the phone so that the cops can hear what’s going on? 40 minutes is also plenty of time to get out your smart phone and start taking video footage as well.
Likewise, there’s plenty of counter-stories that have Clarkson enquiring where the nearest Chinese takeaway is as an alternative and then losing his temper after being told over 30 miles away. That might be true, but that only comes from one source so I couldn’t vouch for its authenticity.
But some people believed that, or the really negative stories, and were happy to repeat that all over the internet, which brings me to the point of this addendum. An event happened and the details are either vague or contradictory and yet people online fell into different camps over the fate of Clarkson and these camps seemed mainly to have been pre-determined by how people felt about him before news of the fracas broke. So, if you hated him before then you were more willing to believe the most extreme and negative stories about him. If you were a fan, you’d be more likely to sign the petition to have him back on Top Gear without seriously considering what it was, exactly, that he had done.
What was also very timely was the release of Jon Ronson’s new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which dealt with online controversy and how people on the internet often devolve into torch wielding posses whenever someone says or does something they don’t like. The internet and social media, it seems, doesn’t do in depth analysis and truth sifting. Ronson appeared on Radio 4 to relate the stories of people who get castigated and damned by strangers on social media for one incident that they did and how that damnation doesn’t go away. One moment of madness or misunderstanding ends up defining a person in the eyes of others forever.
In the absence of a straight, verifiable narrative, people filled in the blanks of what happened based largely on preconceptions which were fed by various news outlets whose impartiality and accuracy has to be questioned. Instead of making a calm and rational judgement over Clarkson’s and Tymon’s actions and culpability and what punishments are suitable, events are more likely to be guided by internet campaigns, rumours, fear of losing valuable exportable TV and fear of being seen to be doing the wrong thing.
My faith in online news and information is at rock bottom: People share memes without checking whether the information contained in them is factual. They share clickbait news articles from non-news organisations that have political and economic agendas and don’t check the facts so long as the mood of the article chimes with their mood. Disinformation is spread on social media constantly and yet very few people stand up and call out falsehood because news is now not about facts, it’s about “getting the message out”. A couple of people I know spread memes that contained blatant falsehoods and when I pointed this out to them they said “yes, it’s not true but the message is too important not to share this”. In other words, lying is alright when the cause is just. I beg to disagree….
My message to anyone reading this is don’t trust online news in particular. In fact, print and TV journalism is little better, but online news is an almost untameable beast which often answers to no editor, or at least not one who is guided by searching for facts. I hate memes, but especially ones that are prepared to lie to get a message across. There is a demand for “stories” which leads to half baked reportage that doesn’t bear up to scrutiny but when people just read headlines that confirm their fears and prejudices, who cares if the main body of the text reads as gibberish.
Trust no online news until you check out the facts. It’s “careless talk costs lives” repackaged.