LONDON – The BBC Trust, the organization that upholds and monitors standards at the public broadcaster, has ruled that a joke made by high profile Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson's was offensive.
Clarkson, one of the highest paid BBC presenters currently on air, compared a Japanese car to the Elephant Man during an episode of Top Gear in February this year.
The BBC Trust said Monday in its editorial standards bulletin that Clarkson's comments that compared a Prius car/camper van hybrid to "people with growths on their faces", strayed into an "offensive stereotypical assumption not confined to The Elephant Man."
The remarks led to 137 complaints to the BBC which also saw the presenter slur his speech to mimic Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, and said the car looked like something that you would not talk to at a party unless you were looking at something else.
Co-presenter Richard Hammond called the vehicle "the elephant car."
The BBC Trust's editorial standards committee investigated the complaints and found that it was in breach of its broadcasting guidelines on harm and offence and was "not editorially justified."
Clarkson's mimicry of Merrick from the film The Elephant Man was "on the margins of acceptability" but that the broader joke about avoiding those with disfigurement at a party had been a step too far, the editorial standards committee said in its bulletin.
The committee ruled that the joke did not meet generally accepted standards the corporation should adhere to in the portrayal of a disability.
In its July and September bulletin published Monday, the BBC Trust's committee said it felt Clarkson's remark "strayed into an offensive stereotypical assumption not confined to The Elephant Man."
As such, it means the remark was "not editorially justified in this context."
Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman defended Clarkson, pointing out that exchange between the presenters was scripted, not ad-libbed.
It was also noted that "the banter" between the three presenters of the show had gone through a full BBC compliance process, so the corporation's compliance system and editorial team were "as much to blame as the presenters and arguably more so".
The Trust report also notes that the producers said that such exchanges on the motoring show was an "imperfect science" that would "invariably upset some viewers at some point".
But after taking everything into account, the BBC's editorial standards committee described the decision to air the jokes as a "regrettable lapse of editorial judgment" and that program-makers "need to be aware that audiences may find casual or purposeless stereotypes to be offensive".
The Committee noted that the complainant felt that the Guidelines do not adequately take into account under-represented groups of people in British society, including those who have physical disfigurements.
The ruling emerged just days after BBC Worldwide, the public broadcaster's money-making arm, has signed fresh three-year commercial deals with Top Gear presenters Clarkson, James May and Hammond.