The BBC faces a potential multimillion pound bill following its suspension of Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, due to foreign broadcasters seeking compensation and rival broadcasters set to poach the suspended host.
The Guardian reports:
Clarkson was suspended and two of the three remaining editions of the current series were pulled from the schedules after allegations that he punched a member of the production team after filming on location in Newcastle last week.
Top Gear co-presenter James May confirmed on Wednesday that Clarkson had been “involved in a bit of a dust-up”. Neither Clarkson nor the BBC would comment on reports that the presenter punched producer Oisin Tymon when no hot food was available after a day’s filming.
Clarkson told reporters outside his London home: “I’ve been suspended, haven’t I? I’m just off to the job centre.” He added: “At least I’m going to be able to get to the Chelsea match tonight.”
The BBC was understood to be keen to resolve the issue as soon as possible, with Clarkson consulting his lawyer, Mark Devereux, a senior partner at the legal firm Olswang. Any meeting with Clarkson is likely to include BBC director general Tony Hall and the corporation’s director of television Danny Cohen.
Hall confirmed in an appearance before parliament’s European scrutiny committee on Wednesday that he was involved in the BBC inquiry into the latest Clarkson controversy.
Top Gear is BBC2’s most popular show, regularly watched by more than 5 million viewers a week. By Wednesday lunchtime more than 350,000 people had signed an online petition organised by the rightwing blogger Guido Fawkes calling for the presenter to be reinstated by the BBC.
Maria Miller, the Conservative MP and former culture secretary, also expressed support for Clarkson in a Wednesday lunchtime interview with Radio 4’s The World at One.
“The BBC needs to be better at managing its talent … there are other organisations that have to deal with larger-than-life characters,” Miller said. “[Clarkson] is, I think, a legend, not just in this country, but around the world.
However, she added that people in Clarkson’s position had to realise “that they are a role model for youngsters”.
“My 13-year-old is one of his biggest fans and will be bitterly disappointed not to be able to see the show on Sunday, but equally I think will understand that the alleged behaviour that has taken place is very serious.”
Clarkson could walk away from the show when his contract runs out at the end of this month whatever the verdict of the BBC’s inquiry into the affair. Rival UK broadcasters would swoop to sign Clarkson, who despite his history of controversy is one of the most popular presenters on UK television.
Both ITV and Channel 4 have previously tried to poach Clarkson from the BBC and his departure would spark a huge bidding war among the corporation’s commercial rivals.
The programme’s suspension could have big ramifications for the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which broadcasts the series to 214 territories with a record global audience of 350 million viewers.
The BBC could be liable for penalty payments, likely to run into millions of pounds, for failing to deliver the final episodes of the series on time, as well as facing having to renegotiate the original deal price for a full series.
The show’s huge global success, generating an estimated £50m a year, is likely to complicate negotiations around any exit.
Top Gear is one of the BBC’s biggest moneyspinners, broadcast in more than 200 countries worldwide and spawning merchandise, magazines, DVDs, live events and locally produced versions in the US and China.
As a contingency measure, BBC Worldwide is to offer foreign broadcasters Top Gear programming that has not been aired before in their respective markets. “We are working on supplying international broadcast partners with alternative content,” said a spokesman for BBC Worldwide.
The Clarkson saga poses a major immediate commercial headache for some of BBC Worldwide’s other Top Gear brand extensions. A question mark now looms over the fate of the sold-out Top Gear Live event in Stavanger, Norway, which is to be held on 27 and 28 March.
The live tour, which is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and a company called Brand Events, includes appearances from the cast members and is scheduled to head to Australia on 18/19 April. Other dates in the global tour calendar include Belfast in May, Sheffield and Johannesburg, South Africa in June and London in November.
Clarkson’s “fracas” came just days before the show’s presenters – Clarkson, May and Richard Hammond – had been expected to sign new contracts tying them to the BBC2 show for the next three years. It is understood those negotiations have been called off.
The next two episodes of Top Gear have been pulled from the schedules and the third, due to have been the last of the current series, is also in doubt.
“Jeremy Clarkson is hugely, hugely valuable,” said one industry executive. “He has a brilliant connection with the audience and very few presenters have that.”
ITV is no stranger to signing BBC talent – its director of television Peter Fincham, a former BBC executive, signed Jonathan Ross after he left the BBC in the wake of “Sachsgate”.
Both ITV and Channel 4 have both looked to sign Clarkson in the past, with Sky and Channel 5, now owned by MTV parent company Viacom, also likely to be interested.
But it remains to be seen how popular he would be on a rival channel outside of the Top Gear format.
The BBC’s disciplinary policy, relating to the majority of its employees, states that allegations of assault constitutes “gross misconduct” and will automatically trigger a formal disciplinary procedure and can lead to summary dismissal without notice.
However, it is not known how the policy applies to Clarkson’s contract with the BBC. Clarkson is not staff but the BBC will have a duty of care to its employee.
Other penalties can include a written warning, a final written warning or dismissal with contractual notice.
Clarkson was given a final warning last year after the row over his mumbled use of the “N-word” in a Top Gear outtake. Cohen was said to have wanted to take disciplinary action against the presenter only to be overruled by Hall.
The BBC did not expand on its original statement, issued on Tuesday, which said: “Following a fracas with a BBC producer, Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended pending an investigation.
“No one else has been suspended. Top Gear will not be broadcast this Sunday. The BBC will be making no further comment at this time.”