Jeremy Clarkson – what would you do?

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To say Top Gear is popular would be an understatement. The show has a worldwide audience of more than 350 million, is watched in over 200 territories including Ghana, Iran and Myanmar and, perhaps most importantly, nets BBC Worldwide approximately £150 million.  Top Gear even has a world record for being the most watched television programme. So, what would you do if you were at the BBC and Top Gear’s star presenter assaulted a colleague?

The incident

It has been widely reported that on 9 March Clarkson was involved in a ‘fracas’ with his producer, Oisin Tymon.  Clarkson was apparently unhappy that Mr Tymon had not provided hot food for him and his two co-stars after they were 2 hours late (having gone to the pub) arriving at the hotel at the end of a day’s filming. During the fracas Tymon was subjected to an ‘unprovoked physical and verbal attack’ from Clarkson which included threats to sack Tymon and ‘the strongest’ expletives. Tymon was also seemingly hit in the face. Clarkson was suspended as was filming for the remaining episodes. There do not appear to be any extenuating circumstances which could explain Clarkson’s conduct (or at least nothing that has been released to the press). Following an investigation the BBC has announced that it will not be renewing his contract.

The risks

The BBC was in a very difficult position: many regard Clarkson as the force behind Top Gear’s phenomenal success so his departure means that the BBC could potentially lose out on £150 million of revenue and anger lots of loyal Top Gear fans. Equally, from an employment law perspective, it would be very difficult to allow him to stay.

Fighting at work is usually regarded as so serious that it destroys the contract of employment or contract for services (Jeremy Clarkson is likely to be a self-employed contractor who is required to personally provide a service). As such it allows an employer to dismiss an employee/contractor without notice. Employers can however decide to accept a breach of contract and instead affirm the breach but this brings its own problems. Other employees may not feel safe or that they aren’t as valued as TV stars and personalities which may affect morale and employee engagement. Perhaps more importantly, allowing him to stay could make it more difficult for the organisation to dismiss other employees for similar offences in the future. Such employees could argue that allowing Clarkson to stay caused them to believe that certain categories of conduct will be overlooked or will be more mercifully treated in light his treatment. Any dismissal could be deemed unfair. The BBC could also find itself liable for any further verbal or physical abuse that Clarkson committed on other employees.

Can he come back?

In a word, yes. If the BBC leave it a short time he’ll be able to come back and they can sidestep the above issues.  However, many competitors will no doubt be chomping at the bit to sign Jeremy Clarkson and his colleagues up for a new show so it is likely that a slightly different version of Top Gear will pop up at some point (unless they have very good restrictive covenants).

Interestingly, Jeremy Clarkson sold his share of Bedder 6, the company which owns Top Gear to the BBC in September 2012, for a reported £3 million so he has perhaps less to lose than the BBC.