That the BBC’s motoring programme, Top Gear, has flirted with controversy since its re-launch in 2002, is no revelation. Indeed, with almost monotonous inevitability, every series of the programme in its current format has not so much mired itself in controversy, as revelled in it. From insulting prime ministers and entire nations, to making what many construe as derogatory remarks about truck drivers and people with mental handicaps, Clarkson & Co have never been backward in saying what they think. Yet it is widely accepted that their style is tongue in cheek, irreverent in tone and not a true reflection of the views of three bigots, but of the efforts of Top Gear’s writers and presenters to entertain and engage an audience. And a huge audience it is, with circa 6.5 million UK viewers per episode and an estimated 350 million viewers worldwide (BARB 2011).
Again, no revelation, but the controversial nature of the programme has a largely positive effect for the BBC. Each time the script writers carefully choreograph Clarkson and sidekicks into another episode of stereotyping or laddish pub-talk, it is doubtful they do so without full awareness of their capacity to offend a small minority or, indeed a nation. Clearly this attracts publicity, and media reports of Top Gear complaints only serve to heighten curiosity and expand its reach to an ever wider audience. A self-serving merry-go-round of free publicity perhaps, but are Top Gear’s stunts and jokes, its scripted and staged tomfoolery, capable of causing real and tangible damage? That is, damage to a brand, and damage to objective, ethical journalism.
Consider the Tesla incident. By Clarkson standards the controversy initially surrounding his review was fairly tame. In December 2008 Top Gear broadcasted a feature in which Clarkson reviewed the Tesla Roadster electric sports car, and pitched it against the petrol-powered Lotus Elise. The negatives centred on the price, alleged reliability issues experienced whilst the car was on test with Top Gear at their track, and the car’s range. Was the manner of Clarkson’s delivery, namely damning with faint praise, enough to do damage to Tesla? Especially within the context of what is an entertainment programme.
When the media inevitably picked up the fact that Top Gear was, once again, under fire, it is not clear whether Tesla or Top Gear came off worse. Looking at John Plunkett’s article in the Guardian, coverage of the car’s alleged shortcomings is tempered by scepticism about Top Gear’s staged approach. “It was billed by Jeremy Clarkson as the ultimate test for an electric car – a drag race against a Lotus Elise on BBC2’s Top Gear. And it was a test that the £92,000 Tesla appeared to fail after it dramatically slowed down on the show’s test track and was pushed into a garage to await charging” (Plunkett 2008).
Can Top Gear really have done any damage to Tesla’s brand as a result of their on-track theatrics? Consider the reaction to Top Gear’s film and the revelation that at no point during the testing, did either Tesla run out of electric charge. As the same Guardian article explains: “it has since emerged that the Tesla, which can be powered from an ordinary domestic plug, did not run out of electricity. The car’s California-based manufacturer said that the charge on neither of the two Teslas used in the Top Gear test fell below 20%.”
Perhaps more than being a damning indictment of Tesla’s product, (which in the final analysis, it isn’t), coverage of this particular controversy signposts a growing disdain for Top Gear’s focus on entertainment as opposed to informative content. Whilst the Top Gear film appears to show a Tesla running out of charge on track, and the car been pushed into a workshop, it emerges that this is not in fact what happened. The explanation of the producers following this seemingly false portrayal of facts, is that they were attempting to show what might have happened if the Tesla had run out of charge. Perhaps a shaky explanation of why the film was fairly misleading – do viewers really need to witness people pushing a car into a workshop to appreciate what might happen if a car runs out of charge? As Will Dron puts it succinctly – “Brilliant – how about showing what would have happened if a Ferrari Enzo had run out of petrol miles from a petrol station? At least the Roadster was a few yards from a plug socket.”(Dron 2011)Again, the comments of Top Gear viewers quoted by the Guardian allude to the transparency of Top Gear’s excuse “I understand trying to make interesting TV, but when it materially changes the image or performance of the product, it’s pretty underhanded,” (Plunkett, 2008).
Surely, that cuts to the nub of the issue, that Top Gear’s portrayal of the Tesla has gone beyond entertainment and actually given a false impression of the product. That in itself, certainly has potential to damage the commercial prospects of a company, regardless of how obvious to viewers it is, that the programme is about entertainment.
And so, perhaps attributable to the litigious culture in the US where Tesla is headquartered, and perhaps due to Top Gear’s dogged refusal to withdraw the controversial episode, both parties are heading for court to settle the spat. In March 2011, more than two years after the episode first aired, Tesla began proceedings to sue the BBC for libel and malicious falsehood. Is it ethical for the BBC to continue broadcasting a piece that, in the absence of clarification from Top Gear’s Executive producer Andy Wilman, appears to misrepresent the Tesla’s true range? Certainly, those who haven’t read around the subject and heard his explanation, might indeed think the Tesla has a much poorer range than it does. “My concern was with American viewers who were tuning in for the first time and might not understand the whole angle of the show. We wanted to make clear that range was not a concern over the entire time of the [Top Gear] test.” (Konrad 2008). Whether Tesla could ever persuade Top Gear (without the help of the High Court) to cease broadcasting that episode, is however doubtful. A public service organisation needs to be free of political and corporate influence, so to accede to Tesla’s request might compromise such values.
Indeed, if there’s one thing we should expect from the BBC, it is to be free from commercial pressures and to be able to report in an objective, open and unbiased way. The question with Top Gear however, is whether its popularity has clouded the editorial judgement of the programme, and whether the pursuit of maintaining its huge audience share is getting in the way of impartiality and fairness. It’s a question that cuts to the core of ethics in journalism, as discussed by Keeble, who quotes the BBC as saying; “Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC as the leading provider of information and entertainment in the United Kingdom and as a pre-eminent broadcaster internationally. It is a legal requirement, but also a source of pride” (2009: 13)
Is Top Gear impartial when reviewing new cars? Of course, many of Clarkson’s car reviews on Top Gear are predictably formulaic, but impartial is not a word which sits comfortably with his style of journalism. There is presumably an agenda, a pre-judging process which panders to the lowest common denominator of what makes a headline, and what will make the show funny. This is perhaps an approach that doesn’t sit well with journalistic and editorial integrity.
The Clarkson approach is to present snippets of factual information, overlaid with strong opinions, vivid analogies and witticisms, which indelibly stamp his unique style on to the show. In fact, to pander to the slavishly analogous tone that some deride him for, much of his output is like a bad Cappuccino; mostly froth. Entertaining froth though, judging by the huge popularity of both Clarkson as a journalist, and as Top Gear anchor. And the answer to the question of whether Top Gear is impartial? It doesn’t matter, but only if we consider Top Gear as purely an entertainment show, which many, including the programmes makers, do. As Matthew Kieran discusses, impartiality is not a duty in all walks of journalism; “It is a commonplace assumption of journalism that the media have a fundamental duty to be impartial in order to achieve the goal of an objective report or analysis of current events. Of course, certain types of feature journalism or polemical programming do not have such a duty” (2002: 23)
The issue with the Tesla film is whether the audience for Top Gear can discern the line between theatrical entertainment, and factual content, given the programme frequently straddles both areas. Ostensibly, a feature purporting to review a car is likely to be perceived by many as containing reliable factual elements, albeit presented in Top Gear’s irreverent style. So how can the viewer know what’s real and what’s edited in for the sake of effect? As Bradbury suggests, in his article about the Tesla legal action for the BusinessGreen website, “perhaps the most damning accusation is that the show had already scripted the Roadster being pushed into the Top Gear hanger by four men before the test drive had taken place” (Bradbury 2011). Whilst the script is deliberately worded so that it does not actually say the Tesla ground to a halt on the Top Gear track, “we calculated the Tesla would run out after 55 miles on our track” (Clarkson 2008), the power of film arguably leaves the viewer with a different impression. As a Tesla spokesperson alludes to in a Guardian article about the incident, choreographed and edited filming is perhaps the most damaging element, “The image of them pushing it off the track was so searing” (Plunkett 2008).
So in the Top Gear film, Clarkson’s script and voiceovers are arguably only part of what is actually said, given the edited VT forms its own powerful narrative. Consider the staged theatrical elements; the spare Tesla grinding to a halt on the track, overlaid with an artificial soundtrack of the motor overheating, the first car being pushed into a workshop apparently out of power, despite having plenty of charge remaining. As Boyd et al assert, the facts need to be presented “without embellishment” to be able to speak for themselves in television journalism, otherwise it becomes “fiction” (Boyd et al. 2008). It’s certainly unrealistic to expect a Sunday evening show like Top Gear, the jewel in BBC2’s crown, not to use a little artistic license to spice things up and make the show watchable. But consider Clarkson’s lines after both Tesla’s had purportedly broken down, “With the light fading we had no cars at all”, and cutting to a shot of Clarkson walking down an empty Top Gear track, with dusk descending, “I did think the Tesla would bring peace and quiet to our track, but I didn’t think it’d be the this quiet” (Clarkson 2008). It is abundantly clear that the impression the viewer gets from the film is that the Tesla has run out of electricity on Top Gear’s track and the spare car has broken down. Harmless entertainment? Entertaining, yes, but not harmless. The portrayal of Tesla’s car is potentially harmful to their reputation as it is not qualified by a full explanation of what really happened.
Top Gear’s Executive Producer, Andy Wilman does provide clarification of the circumstances, but in his blog on the Top Gear website. Of course, using a web blog to tell their side is unlikely to lessen the alleged damage being done by continuing to air the original TV programme unedited. Wilman does clarify that the Tesla never actually ran out of charge, and that Clarkson never in fact said it did. But he doesn’t address the fact that the presentation of the facts and the carefully chosen shots of the car being pushed, of Clarkson walking around an empty track, tell a different story. “We have to prepare in advance a treatment – a rough draft of a script so that the director and film crew can get to work right away, knowing what shots they will need to capture. It will contain the facts about a car” (Wilman 2011) However, as happened in this case, TV has the power to distort those facts, and to tell an entirely different story, one which grabs headlines, and viewers.
The answer perhaps, lies in the field of journalism known as infotainment. Top Gear in the `80s and early `90s was a relatively sedate magazine show, with the likes of William Woollard and Chris Goffey reviewing cars and giving the viewer a more clearly developed verdict. The Top Gear of today dances to an entirely different tune though. On the infotainment continuum as discussed by Brants in the article “Who’s afraid of infotainment?”, it sits comfortably on the side of entertainment, a long way down the information scale.(Brants, 1998)
It is hard to argue that Top Gear’s Tesla film is an objective piece of journalism. While Top Gear continues to combine information with fictional entertainment, the danger is that facts become distorted. Unless a piece like the Tesla film contains clarification of any such factual distortions, it could be argued as being a false representation of the product. This surely, goes to the heart of Tesla’s complaint with the aforementioned Top Gear review.
List of references
Boyd, A. Stewart, P. Alexander, R. (2008) Broadcast Journalism. 2nd edition. Oxford, Focal Press.
Brants, K. (1998) Who’s afraid of infotainment? Published in the European Journal of Communications. Sage
Keeble, R (2009) Ethics for journalists. 2nd edition
Kieran, M (2002) Media Ethics. Routledge, London
Plunkett, J. (2008) Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson under fire over Tesla electric car test drive. [24 December 2008] available from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/dec/24/jeremy-clarkson-top-gear-tesla-electric-car> [24 May 2011]
BARB (2011) Weekly top programmes, BBC2 Jan 17-Jan 23 2011. Available fromhttp://www.barb.co.uk/report/weeklyTopProgrammesOverview? [24 May 2011]
Bradbury, D. (2011) Tesla sues Top Gear after losing patience with Clarkson. [30 March 2011] available fromhttp://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2038410/tesla-sues-gear-losing-patience-clarkson [24 May 2011]
Dron, W. (2011) Does the BBC have an anti-electric car agenda? [11 May 2011] available fromhttp://www.thechargingpoint.com/2011/05/11/does-the-bbc-have-an-anti-electric-car-agenda/ [24 May 2011]
Wilman, A. (2011) Tesla vs. Top Gear: Andy Wilman on our current legal action. [2 April 2011] available fromhttp://transmission.blogs.topgear.com/2011/04/02/tesla-vs-top-gear-andy-wilman-on-our-current-legal-action/ [25 May 2011]