‘Fame is not fastidious about the lips which spread it. So long as there are mouths to reiterate the one name, it does not matter whose they are.’ Elias Canetti – Crowds and Power
The Power of Jeremy Clarkson
As the Jeremy Clarkson furore continues (you can read more about it here) we are told that a petition to have him reinstated to his role as presenter on Top Gear and therefore escape the serious sanction of dismissal had, by the time it was submitted, garnered one million signatures.
By any measure this is a huge response on the part of the general public. It is one thing to have the groundswell of public opinion behind a cause, it is another for the extent of that public opinion to be such that individuals are compelled to seek out a petition and put their names to it in support of that cause. Furthermore, from what we understand of the circumstances, Clarkson was not the victim of the incident in question but was the aggressor. We also know of a number of previous occasions where he has behaved inappropriately or has caused serious offence (see here, here and here). We know that this is not an isolated incident.
And yet, rather than appealing for justice to be done and for appropriate punishment to take place, the groundswell of a significant portion of public opinion is for the opposite outcome, that is for Jeremy Clarkson goes unpunished and that the normal principles of employment law (and presumably the BBC’s own internal code of conduct) are set aside. It would seem that on this occasion, the rights of the victim are to be ignored.
The question is why? Why are so many people eager to throw their support behind Jeremy Clarkson in such an emphatic way?
From a power perspective this question can be rephrased. What are the scarce resources in Jeremy Clarkson’s possession over which he controls access and which enable him to have others do what he would have them do? (This question assumes, of course, that during normal service Clarkson actively behaves in such a way so as to increase his popularity. He may deny this, however the evidence would suggest otherwise. A quiet life lived well out of the public eye would very quickly and effectively diminish a person’s profile if they were truly serious about achieving this). Or to put it another way: what is it that Jeremy Clarkson has that other people need or want, and need or want to the extent that his influence in their lives prompts such an emphatic and supportive response?
It is straightforward enough to consider the financial resources that he controls where his employers at the BBC are concerned. Reports suggest that the program nets the Corporation £67 million income per year and this explains their ongoing reluctance to dispense with his services where many others would not have survived for nearly as long. This control over scarce financial resources (financial resources are usually scarce in nature), provides Clarkson with the leverage with which he is able to wield power over his bosses. Signifiers of this power-holding position include an unwillingness to change his behaviour following previous misdemeanours, and a lack of contrition or shame following his suspension from such a high-profile public position. For example, during the past two weeks Clarkson has remained very much in the public eye and has been willing to court media attention during the period of his suspension, an indicator of his understanding of the nature of the power relationship that exists between himself and senior management at the BBC. He recognises that it is he who is the power-holder and that his employers are not. What is less obvious, however, is the nature of the scarce resources that Jeremy Clarkson possesses to which many members of the British public wish to gain access.
What Clarkson has succeeded in achieving is the cultivation and projection of an image of himself as the everyman: dressed in jeans, a little advanced in years, unrefined in manner. However, this everyman is also an everyman that is able to regularly indulge in activities and behaviours which many ordinary men in the UK cannot afford such as racing expensive cars in exotic locations. He is also at liberty to indulge in many activities and behaviours that many avoid due to the fear of social sanction, such as acting impulsively, speaking their mind in certain situations, making racial slurs etc. In this role Jeremy Clarkson has become an outlet for many ordinary (and some not so ordinary) men living in the UK who can vicariously live a certain part of their lives through his various antics. The power he wields over them is the embodiment of the daydream that, however remote, it is possible for the average man to escape from his everyday life and indulge in a lifestyle of unhindered petrol-fuelled hedonism, one in which disapproving voices can be sidelined.
Clarkson’s power, then, is two-fold. Firstly, he controls access to the scarce resource of a fantasy, a particularly male fantasy with which many men in the UK (and many beyond) can identify in him and through him. Secondly, he himself is a scarce resource. There are few public figures in this country doing what he does and saying what he says. Because Jeremy Clarkson is a clever man who recognises this, he is able to use this public support to wield power not only over the BBC, but over any individual or group to which he might happen to take a disliking for.
There is much to be said about the importance of all of this in relation to the concept of identity for the contemporary British male. There is also much to be said about the psychology behind the particularly male tendency of attaching identity and status to the car (or cars) they own and, in a related way, the car as a symbol embodying individual freedom. However, that discussion will be for another time.
One last question to ask is who or what it is that wields its power over Jeremy Clarkson? After all, here is a man who appears determined to remain in the public eye and who regularly and deliberately courts controversy in order to achieve this. Here is a man who appears driven by someone or something; a man with a pressing need to be noticed, to be remembered, to be approved of. Canetti1 describes the impersonalised nature of celebrity in a passage entitled Fame: ‘A celebrity collects a chorus of voices. All he wants is to hear them repeat his name. As long as there are enough of them and they are versed in his name it does not matter whether these voices belong to the dead, to the living, or to the as yet unborn.’
Is there something from Jeremy Clarkson’s past that drives him, compelling him to find ‘a chorus of voices’ that will repeat his name? Or is his need for the scarce resource of celebrity driven by the ultimate power to which all are subject and which, from the future, looms over every moment of the present, that of his finite mortality?
1. Canetti, E (1960). Crowds and Power. p.461-2 London: Penguin