In a post-Snowden world, can we afford to criticise Clarkson?

Anyone could be Clarksoned these days. Mark Hooper, CC BY-NC-SA

Jeremy Clarkson is in the soup again for saying the wrong thing. This time he has been accused of using deeply offensive, racist language, in a Top Gear outtake two years ago.

The usual gang of anti-Clarksonites and more than a few others have lined up to demand the BBC fire him. Perhaps surprisingly, members of the government and some in the media not otherwise known as Clarkson fans have offered him qualified support.

Television presenters have long faced the threat of old footage being dug up an used against them. Now, though, we all have to worry about it. Unless you’ve spent the last two decades saying nothing bad about anyone, you could find yourself in the soup too.

We all love a good witch hunt, as long as we are not the one being hunted. But could any of us withstand the kind of scrutiny Clarkson’s misspoken offence, recognised at the time but resurrected two years later, was subjected to? To be blunt, we are going to have to.

Soundbite politics, the 24-hour news cycle and our short attention spans mean that words and phrases are taken out of context and wielded as weapons to demonise and misrepresent opponents, shout insults past each other, blame and preferably punish someone.

And more importantly, for the best part of the past 25 years, commercial companies have been recording, storing, processing and analysing everything we see and do online.

Since the 2006 EU Data Retention Directive, telecommunications service providers have been obliged to store details of, and provide government access to, everything everyone does on the telephone or internet for a period of between six months and two years.

We’ve also discovered in the past year via the revelations of former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, that governments, in particular the UK and US variety, have been going much further, watching and recording our networked lives in even more detail than previously realised. All telephone and internet traffic is being collected, processed and stored, nominally for current or potential future use in the fight against terrorism or serious crime.

Anyone’s complete online life history can be examined in forensic detail. Just one of the problems with these mass commercial and governmental silos of personal digital life histories is that small items can sit like unexploded ordnance in your record. They can be taken out of context at any time and cause serious damage.

Most of us don’t have Clarkson’s public profile but, as Cardinal Richelieu is rumoured to have said: “Give me six lines written by the most honest man and I’ll show you the evidence to hang him.”

And even if we’ve never said anything offensive ourselves, which of us knows what nefarious activities people connected to people connected to people connected to us via the internet might have engaged in at some time?

Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the NSA, told Congress in July 2013 that you don’t need to be a suspected bad guy to gain the attention of the intelligence services. The NSA track people “three hops” from their targets.

If I had communicated with 200 people during my online lifetime I’d be three hops away from more than 5m people. And most of us interact with far more than that.

Europe divided

In a historic decision on April 8, the Court of Justice of the European Union hinted that all this amounts to mass surveillance when deciding to invalidate the Data Retention Directive. Several European countries had already taken steps to overrule the directive. The UK government, by contrast, has decided the UK data retention regulations will remain in force whilst they consider what to do about the ruling.

The Court of Justice of the EU noted in its decision that the fact that anything we say or do is being recorded is likely to have a chilling effect on our freedom of expression.

I don’t find casual laddish racist remarks at all funny. I find them offensive. They cause division, discrimination and tension. But Clarkson misspoke, by accident, two years ago, when recording a popular TV programme. The trademark of said programme is three middle-aged men, acting like big kids, mucking about with cars and laddishly insulting people for laughs.

Clarkson has apologised for inadvertently using a word he says he personally loathes. The motives of those who leaked the recording are not known.

I have no idea whether he is racist, though I suspect he isn’t. Intended or not, ill-used words do cause damage but it is the presence or absence of hateful intent behind such remarks rather than the words used that define the mindset of the speaker. We can’t read minds so we interpret that intent, by proxy, from people’s words.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that he or she who wishes to throw metaphorical stones at Jeremy Clarkson think also of the many stored and detailed digital dossiers they have created in their own digital life and how fragments thereof might well, one day, be held against them.