The limits of Jeremy Clarkson

As a columnist he is as coarse and intolerant as can be, but the bluster might just be hiding a real

The other evening I did something I would usually avoid doing: I watched a television programme presented by Jeremy Clarkson.

It was "another chance to see" a 2003 documentary about the Victoria Cross, and pretty good it was, too. Clarkson in particular was a revelation if your experience of him was limited, as mine was, to reading his columns in the Sun and the Sunday Times and catching the occasional snatch of Top Gear.

He was calm and thoughtful, he hardly harangued or blustered at all, and he asked some interesting questions about the nature of heroism and how it should be honoured. So I found myself wondering why this man, who seemed, on the evidence of the programme, to possess a fair measure of judgement and sensitivity, was prepared to sit at a keyboard twice a week and write such unpleasant things for the newspapers.

I had in mind an item of his in the Sun that very day, about the failure of the Miss Great Britain contest organisers to find a suitably attractive contestant among the young women of Birmingham. "Absolutely," wrote Clarkson. "I've done some trawling and the only likely candidate I can come up with, who was actually born in Birmingham, is . . . Clare Short. With her fine teeth, pert breasts and expensive hair, she'd have walked it."

It would be nice to say that it doesn't get much coarser than that, but it would be tempting fate. This is the man who, when rebuked by Ofcom for describing a model of car as "a bit ginger beer", thought it was clever to call it "a bit lesbian" instead, and this is the writer who, when searching for an image to sum up his opinion of the musical Spamalot, picked out "as funny as a bout of chlamydia". Coarse is his thing.

So how did he manage the Victoria Cross programme? Was he censored and restrained by the producer so as to present a false image of reasonableness? It's possible, but an alternative explanation suggested itself after we heard the programme's punchline: his wife, he revealed, is the daughter of a Victoria Cross winner, and not just any old VC winner (if you can say such a thing), but an outstandingly heroic and modest one.

Again this reminded me of something Clarkson had written. A couple of weeks ago, when he was raising two fingers to Ofcom in his column in the Sun, he made another reference to his family. He mentioned that he did not allow his children to use the word "nigger", because, after all, there were limits to what you could say.

The impression left by these stories is that when something really matters to Clarkson (the memory of his father-in-law, for instance, or the behaviour of his children), he can set aside his high-voltage abusiveness and act sensibly and responsibly - but that this is not a courtesy he is prepared to extend to others.

For the Sun and the Sunday Times, indeed, he seems happy to be a sort of shock jock or Punch and Judy character, straining to be as foul as he can get away with about foreigners of all kinds, fat people, "faceless former Greenham lesbos", environmentalists, John Prescott, Clare Short and all his other targets. He has only contempt for them; they and the things that matter to them are simply there for him to mock in the most hurtful and ingenious ways he can dream up.

It's a pity, in a way, that we aren't all related to Jeremy Clarkson; it might prevent a lot of unpleasantness. Then again, it might be a high price to pay.

A US official said . . .

There was something grudging and disingenuous about the response of the Guardian readers' editor, Siobhain Butterworth, to complaints about the paper's front-page lead story of 22 May, headlined "Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq".

This was a scary story evidently based almost entirely on a briefing by one unnamed US official in Baghdad, and it was presented with barely a hint of scepticism. It is precisely the sort of reporting that has provoked soul-searching in American mainstream journalism in the past few years - as the Guardian's own media pages have reported.

Butterworth wrote that: a) 180 complaints wasn't that many when set against the paper's total readership, b) only time would tell if the story was true or untrue, c) the article was part of a "continuum" that readers were expected to know about and d) a frank discussion of the sourcing might have weakened the impact of the story.

The phrase "a US official said" has, as I dare say even US officials themselves would admit, limited credibility these days in much of the world, particularly in stories relating to Iraq and Iran. If you use it, you surely need to give readers powerful additional reasons why, this time, they should believe what the US official is saying.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University