Opinion: Why we crave the abuse of Jeremy Clarkson

'Top Gear' star suspended for 'fracas'
'Top Gear' star suspended for 'fracas'

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Story highlights

  • Top Gear Jeremy Clarkson allegedly lashed out a producer, prompting BBC to cancel broadcast of program
  • Clarkson, like so many celebrities, sees his stock grow with every controversy, says David Giles
  • Clarkson is already assured of immortality, says Giles, adding that like all celebrities -- the presenter acts as conduit of divinity

David Giles is Reader in Media Psychology at the University of Winchester. His books include "Illusions of Immortality: A psychology of fame and celebrity" (Macmillan, 2000) and "Psychology of the Media" (Palgrave, 2010). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)A well-heeled employer goes back to his hotel after a hard(ish) day's work and finds no hot dinner on the table. He snaps, lashing out (allegedly) at the nearest underling who could be held responsible.

Within days, almost 1 million people sign a petition for him not to lose his job, while the suspension of the TV program he presents loses the BBC 4 million viewers. Why is this man so popular that he can be accused of abusing his staff (not to mention members of other ethnic groups and nationalities) and seemingly get away with it? A serial offender, Jeremy Clarkson seems to enjoy a charmed life. But, with the BBC now deliberating over his future, has his luck finally run out?
David Giles
Not a chance. Clarkson, like so many celebrities, sees his stock grow with every controversy. Every indiscretion seems calculated to raise his profile and boost his esteem among his fervent followers that little bit further.
    The "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" incident, which saw the N-word slip out -- whoops, did I really hear what I think I heard? -- was designed to achieve just the right effect: offensive enough to generate howls of protest, but trivial enough for his fans to spring to his defense, crying "over-reaction" and "storm in a teacup." The presenter later apologized, saying his efforts to obscure the offending word "weren't quite good enough."
    On this latest occasion, was it the beleaguered producer lodging a complaint, or, like any normal person who's been punched in the face by a thug, pressing charges with the local constabulary? No, it was none other than Clarkson who willingly gave himself up to the corporation. Go on, sack me, he seemed to be saying, when he told a reporter that his dismissal "is coming, isn't it?" See how my adoring public likes that.
    Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho are, like Clarkson, seasoned experts in rebranding themselves (or their team) as the victims, even when they seem to have everything going for them bar the position of the stars. They have all perfected the glum, hangdog expression that invites sympathy, begging forgiveness for each misdemeanour. It makes their success all the sweeter if they can convince us that they achieved it in the face of hostility.
    While waiting for the BBC to deliver its verdict, Clarkson penned an article for The Sun in which he likened himself to a "dinosaur" whose time is about to run out, knowing full well that his followers will protest: no, of course you're not washed up and irrelevant, Jeremy. Britain needs you to stand up to Johnny Foreigner! It is almost tempting to wonder whether there might be a political role ahead of him should the Beeb decide to give him the push for once and for all (I use the word "political" advisedly here).

    Devotees flinch with pain

    The Romans had a goddess, Fama, who fanfared both good and bad deeds for all eternity. Badly behaved celebrities have their trumpets blown by the massed forces of the media, which are of course only too pleased to have such good copy. Clarkson is already assured of immortality, if only through YouTube or its futuristic equivalent, but while waiting to shuffle off this mortal coil he -- like all celebrities -- acts as a conduit of divinity.
    He is the chain that binds the earthly audience to the goddess Fama, and this is why we allow him to act in such a beastly way, without complaining (too much). In the east of India, holy intermediaries called Kalasis beat devotees with canes. The devotees flinch with the mortal pain, but they receive it as a blessing.
    Contestants on the X Factor queue all night for the opportunity to be verbally abused by Simon Cowell. Bruises, actual and emotional, are worn with pride, whether delivered by the Kalasis cane, Cowell's tongue, or Clarkson's fist (allegedly). They are blessed that are touched by celebrity.
    So how about Oisin Tymon, Clarkson's hapless producer, who, according to the Daily Telegraph, had to seek hospital treatment for a cut lip following the "fracas?"
    Had he presented poor, weary Jeremy with a nice succulent steak on his arrival that evening, he would still be languishing in the realms of the unknown. And don't feel sorry for the hotel owner either: just watch bookings at Simonstone Hall, the Yorkshire hotel where the alleged incident took place, go through the roof. They may as well start engraving that blue plaque now.