Paul Thomas: Best way to deal with a blowhard? Just ignore him

Jeremy Clarkson's outrageous outbursts occur whenever he has a new book or DVD on the market. Photo / Supplied
Jeremy Clarkson's outrageous outbursts occur whenever he has a new book or DVD on the market. Photo / Supplied

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it's surely tarsealed with attempts at humour.

The latest in the long line of those who've caused outrage by trying to be funny are British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame, and home-grown controversialist Michael Laws.

Both have itchy trigger fingers. Referring to journalists who pursued the Prime Minister over the teapot affair, Laws said, "If I had a gun, I'd shoot them". Asked for his opinion on UK public sector workers striking over proposed pension reform, Clarkson said he'd "take them outside and execute them in front of their families".

Both trotted out the "I was only joking" defence.

On the face of it, Clarkson's outburst was more problematic, given the scale of his proposed slaughter - the unions reckoned 2 million people took part in the strikes - and the sadistic flourish.

I see it differently.

Clarkson is in the Fleet St tradition of the well-lubricated rogue male, socially and politically somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, who blurts out what others fear to murmur. Political correctness has been a godsend to this school of low comedy: once upon a time they simply repeated, with brio, what the typical saloon bar blowhard might say after a few drinks; now they say what the typical saloon bar blowhard thinks but hesitates to say out loud.

Clarkson didn't get where he is today without knowing his audience. In this instance he was pandering to their favourite fantasy: being the unchallenged, unrestrained ruler of the country, if not the world, and sorting things out once and for all. This basically involves lining all those who disagree with them up against a wall.

Second, Clarkson has scant pretensions to being a commentator on the big issues. If you ask him what he thinks about the public sector strike, you're unlikely to get a thoughtful exposition on the role of government in the era of globalised hyper-capitalism, or the need for sacrifice at a time of economic crisis. This is, after all, the bloke who summarised a day in the life of a long-distance lorry driver thus: "Change gear, change gear, check mirror, change gear, murder a prostitute, change gear, check mirror ..."

Third, even if it was logistically possible (which it isn't), the notion of a democratic society which has abolished capital punishment executing two million people for going on strike is beyond absurd.

In contrast Laws, the former MP and mayor, presents himself as a commentator - albeit a provocative one - on social issues and national affairs.

When he weighs in on matters such as race relations and child abuse, he gives every appearance of meaning exactly what he says.

Laws was also quite specific: after initially targeting journalists covering the John Key-John Banks tea party, he narrowed the focus to Herald on Sunday staff. When you single out easily identifiable individuals, as opposed to an anonymous mass of striking workers, it becomes harder to get away with the "can't you take a joke?" counter-attack.

Laws obviously didn't intend his comments to be taken literally, but it's all in the execution, so to speak. As we learn early on in life, telling a joke is one thing, telling it well is something else altogether.

The encouraging aspect of this affair was that those on the receiving end of Laws' blast did the sensible thing and largely ignored it. This may have been because Laws is now operating on the law of diminishing returns; hopefully it reflects an awareness that these controversy-courting eruptions are essentially self-promotional, so reacting to them just plays into his hands.

In case there was anyone in supposedly worldly-wise Britain who hadn't cottoned on to Clarkson's modus operandi, the Independent juxtaposed his publishing history and track record of controversial statements: in a nutshell whenever he has a new book or DVD on the market, he says something outrageous.

Despite that the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition felt obliged to get involved, and the BBC was inundated with complaints. A union leader called Clarkson's remarks "appalling, outrageous, revolting and disgusting", demanded that he be sacked and urged the police to get involved.

This textbook example of deploying a pile-driver to deal with a pistachio culminated with the broadly accurate but insufferably pompous observation that while Clarkson drives fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding society together: "They save lives on a daily basis; they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses ..."

I don't know about you but when I read that, my immediate, unvarnished reaction was, Go on, Jeremy, do it again.

Meanwhile bookshops report that Clarkson's new book is flying off the shelves.

- NZ Herald

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