U.K. Regulator: BBC's 'Top Gear' Host Deliberately Used Racial Slur

Jeremy Clarkson - P 2011
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Ofcom says the British public broadcaster breached broadcasting rules during a special shot in Burma that featured controversial comments from Jeremy Clarkson.

LONDON — U.K. media regulator Ofcom on Monday ruled that Jeremy Clarkson, the host of BBC hit show Top Gear, deliberately used an offensive racial term during a special shot in Burma, saying the show breached broadcasting standards in Britain.

In the Burma special, Clarkson and the other hosts of the car/motor show built a makeshift bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand. They observed the completed bridge, on which an Asian man was seen walking toward them.

"That is a proud moment," Clarkson said. "But … there is a slope on it." Co-host Richard Hammond responded: "You are right … it is definitely higher on that side."

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Ofcom received two complaints from viewers who, it said, "expressed concern that the word 'slope' referred to the Asian man crossing the bridge and was an offensive racist term."

Ofcom noted that the word is "an offensive and pejorative term for a person of East Asian descent, which originated during the Vietnam War." While the regulator said the term was more widely known in Australia and America, "it is also capable of causing offense in the U.K."

The BBC in its response said that the show had used the word "in what the program makers believed was an inoffensive, humorous play on words, addressed at the build quality of a bridge, which the team had constructed, and a local Asian man who was crossing it." 

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The broadcaster added that the program makers thought the word was "mere slang and that they were "not aware at the time that it had the potential to cause offense, particularly in some countries outside the U.K." The BBC concluded that had they been aware, they would not have used the word.

But Ofcom concluded in a ruling published Monday that "Jeremy Clarkson deliberately employed the offensive word to refer to the Asian person crossing the bridge, as well as the camber of the bridge." It highlighted that the sequence was scripted in advance, meaning that "clear consideration" must have been given to the wording.

The U.K. broadcasting code's rule 2.3 requires "that potentially offensive material is justified by its context," Ofcom noted.

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It concluded: "In the circumstances of this particular case, there was insufficient context to justify the broadcast of this material."

Added Ofcom: "The BBC did not apply generally accepted standards so as to provide adequate protection for members of the public from offensive material. As a result, there was a breach of rule 2.3."

In the U.S., Top Gear airs on BBC America.

Clarkson critics earlier this year called for his firing after unaired Top Gear footage emerged that showed him apparently mumbling the N-word while reciting a nursery rhyme. 

The BBC discussed the issue with the host and gave him a warning. 

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai