Image: BBC, via Guardian
BBC’s original response is posted below.
I am writing this open letter in response to the feedback received by those who complained about Jeremy Clarkson’s facial growth jibe, (Top Gear, 5th Feb).
What shocked me on first reading it was that you acknowledge that the presenters did make a reference to facial disfigurement, but you claim that it was clear by the absurdity of the context that no offence was intended. If the context was that absurd why was there a need to include the comments at all? I have no doubts that you wouldn’t intentionally offend any minority group, because after all we’re paying our licence fee for quality, ethical broadcasting, but I do believe there has been a complete lack of judgement and understanding on your behalf.
If the Executive Producer of the show had first-hand experience of disfigurement then I’m confident that this comment wouldn’t have made the edit. Why? He would have realised the psychological scarring that comes attached with having a disfigurement, and how such comments can have even the slightest of effect on the most strong-willed.
I’m not implying that Top Gear viewers hang on to every one of Clarkson’s words with baited breath, heeding his jokes, and waiting to act upon them. No, I don’t for believe for one minute any audience member in the studio, during that episode, who chuckled at this so-called joke, would be malicious towards someone with a disfigurement. Yet comments like this can compound people with disfigurements to isolation, and a feeling that everyone is laughing at them. When you have a disfigurement every day can feel like a struggle, like the weight of the world is against you.
Yes you’re right, or at least partly, the Elephant Man is a cinematic character, universally identified as a disfigured and deformed loner relegated to the low social status of a Victorian freak show. As you may be aware, he was also a real person. To suggest that Clarkson didn’t make reference to a wider group of people would be incorrect – the whole jibe started with him saying “… you know sometimes you meet someone and they have a growth on their face and it is bigger than their face… one of those really ugly things”.
To be honest an apology doesn’t really cut it. What’s done is done. However, more sensitivity over any future reference to disfigurement would be appreciated. I have a non-malignant growth on the right side of my face – as a result of a condition that has often been incorrectly attributed to Joseph Merrick. I’m not an elephant, and I certainly never want to be associated with a modern day freak show. I’m human, and thus I wanted to be treated as one – with dignity.
Maybe a more genuine apology would be to cast a disfigured actor in a non-visually disabled role.
“Thank you for your email regarding a comment made by Jeremy Clarkson during Top Gear on 5th February 2012.
We are sorry for the delay in replying to your complaint but we wanted to discuss your concerns with the Executive Producer of Top Gear, Andy Wilman, before responding.
Whilst it’s true that the presenters did reference facial disfigurement when reviewing the Prius Campervan, we hope it would be clear from the sheer absurdity of the context that no offence was intended. It’s also important to note that Richard immediately turned the tables on Jeremy following his initial comments, making him the butt of the joke. For the most part, the comparison being drawn was between the camper and the Elephant Man but this was simply meant as a reference to a famous cinematic character as opposed to any wider group of people. At all times the joke was firmly on Jeremy or, to a much greater extent, the Prius Campervan itself but we are genuinely sorry if the item has caused any upset.”