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BBC host insults Gordon Brown in latest dust-up

Jeremy Clarkson, host of the popular show 'Top Gear,' calls the British prime minister a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' during a speech. The network recently has been dogged by controversies.

February 07, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Can "the Beeb" catch a beebing break?

The broadcaster everyone in Britain loves -- and loves to hate -- is embroiled in yet another controversy, its third in just a few weeks.

This time, the host of one of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s most popular TV shows has been lambasted for referring to Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a "one-eyed Scottish idiot." Brown has been blind in one eye since a rugby accident in his youth.

Jeremy Clarkson, host of the automotive program "Top Gear," made the comment in a speech in Australia, during which he also described Brown as a liar. Members of Brown's Labor Party, fellow Scots and advocates for the visually impaired all cried foul Friday and called for an apology, which Clarkson issued -- sort of.

"In the heat of the moment, I made a remark about the prime minister's personal appearance for which, upon reflection, I apologize," Clarkson said, according to none other than the BBC, which now considers the case closed.

It was the second time this week that the publicly funded broadcaster -- or "Auntie," as some people here call it with both affection and scorn -- has landed in hot water.

It dropped Carol Thatcher, daughter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, from one of its programs after she used a racially offensive term to describe a French tennis player during a conversation in the studio's green room.

Thatcher's supporters allege that she was being targeted because of who her mother is and that the conversation was a private exchange. But the BBC pointed out that the incident took place on work premises within earshot of several people, some of whom challenged Thatcher on the spot.

Last month viewers and politicians alike subjected the Beeb to a fusillade of criticism over its refusal to air a charity's appeal for assistance to residents of the violence-torn Gaza Strip, where nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed during a sustained Israeli offensive.

The BBC, which in the past has been slammed as biased by the Israeli government, defended its decision as necessary for maintaining a reputation for journalistic impartiality. Sky News made a similar decision.

Such controversies add fuel to the constantly churning engine of demands for reform of the BBC, including making it more responsive to viewers.

The company is funded through annual license fees that anyone who owns a television in Britain must pay. It aggressively goes after those payments, warning scofflaws through billboard ads, sending inspectors to homes where it suspects noncompliance and even finding out who has purchased a TV online, then dispatching a letter reminding the buyer to fork over the $195 license fee.

Two of the BBC's most popular personalities, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, caused a media storm in October when they called actor Andrew Sachs' home during a radio show and left vulgar messages in which Ross swore and Brand talked about having slept with Sachs' granddaughter. (She acknowledges the fact.)

Sachs is beloved in Britain for his portrayal of the hapless and harried waiter Manuel in the 1970s sitcom "Fawlty Towers" -- a performance many Britons still regard as classic but one that probably would be seen as ethnically demeaning today.

Hit by more than 18,000 complaints, BBC officials acknowledged a "gross lapse of taste" and suspended the pair for several weeks. Both men groveled through multiple public apologies.

Clarkson himself is no stranger to controversy. In November, eyebrows shot up at a joke he made during a "Top Gear" segment on truck drivers that alluded to the notorious case of a forklift driver who was found guilty of killing five prostitutes.

"Change gear, change gear, change gear, check mirror, murder a prostitute, change gear, change gear, murder. That's a lot of effort in a day," Clarkson said.

Britain's broadcasting regulator later ruled that the remark did not breach the broadcasting code.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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