Jeremy Clarkson mumbled the rhyme in the footage, which was not broadcast by the BBC. Photo: Getty
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The N-word: Jeremy Clarkson has finally urinated on the live rail of racism

Jeremy Clarkson said the word "nigger" in a manner that was meant to be mischievously offensive - and I, for one, am fed up with being expected to serve up elegant, dignified and dispassionate responses each time one of his jibes against a racial group emerges into the airwaves.

I was going to leave this Jeremy Clarkson thing alone. Really, I was. I had a load of laundry to do, and I hadn’t eaten yet. But then I read an article by Marina Hyde in the Guardian whose headline claimed that “revulsion over Jeremy Clarkson has become a badge of honour for the left”. And so, appropriately goaded into a response, like a sleepy bear who has had its belly prodded once too many times with a spitefully sharp stick, here I am.

I am not some paid-up member of an anti-Clarkson fan club. I am busy and Jeremy Clarkson wastes my time, because every now and then he makes a bigoted comment and I am asked to respond to it. I don’t sit in, waiting for him to slip up. He is a brilliant broadcaster whose show would still be a success if he never said another racist thing again. And I would honestly rather that he didn’t. I, for one, am fed up with being expected to serve up elegant, dignified and dispassionate responses each time one of his finely-calibrated jibes – aimed at racial or social groups regarded as too powerless, too humourless, or too distant to reply – emerges into the airwaves.

I am not sure if Marina Hyde’s article was aimed at the participants in some perverse liberal turf war, but I am not part of it. I am a writer of colour trying to make his career as best he can, and all I see is a man who is making millions of pounds who is consistently indulged because he is running one of the world’s most successful shows. Not even a fine. Not even a suspension. Just an “official warning”, or a “final warning”, whatever that is.

Jeremy Clarkson said the word "nigger" – let’s look at that word for a moment, uncensored, in all its ugliness – in a manner that was meant to be mischievously offensive. That’s why he mumbled it. I don’t know why he’s suddenly so mealy-mouthed now, why the cat has got his tongue. Some of his remarks over the years have been less offensive than others, but most of them have been in the same vague ballpark. Mexicans, Gypsies, slopes. The only reason that he’s twitching now, perhaps, is that because he’s finally urinated on the live rail of racism, the “N-Word”, that he’s been flirting with for ages. And the sad truth is that he’s probably spent more time trying to track down whoever leaked that video than he has in reflecting upon just why so many people are genuinely horrified.

My revulsion at Jeremy Clarkson’s racism is not a fashion statement. Neither is my revulsion at some of the defences of him that I have seen this week, which have put me in a state of fury that was almost overwhelming, to the extent that I was afraid to begin writing this article for the uncontrollable rage that might emerge. Because people may scorn UKIP as political outsiders, but their sentiments are already among us. Their sentiments are mainstream, since for years Jeremy Clarkson has been clothing them in a clown suit.

A few months ago I was asked to go on the radio to debate whether UKIP’s use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” was racist. I refused. I refused because I would have found it demeaning. Bongo Bongo Land is so flagrantly racist, I told them, that I didn’t see where the debate was. Here’s what’s going to happen, I said. You’re going to put me on some show with a smooth-talking UKIP spokesperson who’s going to be all innocent and mild-mannered, and I’m going to get angry and possibly lose it, and then the audience will have their Angry Black Man and then people will be asking why we have chips on our shoulders and why we are so mad about everything. So I said no.

And I said no because Bongo Bongo Land is the kind of thing that the racists probably smirked when they were carving up Africa at that conference in Berlin in the 1880s. Hell, for all I know, they may have been mumbling eeny-meeny-miny-mo when they were deciding which territories they wanted for themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that Clarkson has reminded me this week why I hate his casual racism. Because its frequency and popularity are reminders of the very real prejudice that is still acceptable within Britain today. Clarkson’s casual racism is the kind of thing that landlords think when they are deciding not to let properties to black people in the supposed multiracial utopia that is London. It is the kind of thing that led to the racist van campaign. The kind of thing that brings your kids home from school in floods of tears, that makes employers think twice before calling you to interview. It is insidious and it is widespread and we have recently learned from the BBC that Clarkson is not even going to be fined or suspended for it. And I find no comfort, let alone a badge of honour, in any of that.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder