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Watchdog backs Top Gear in war with Mexico

Ofcom rules 'lazy, feckless' jibes 'justified by the context'

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Broadcasting watchdog Ofcom has ruled that comments by the presenters of Top Gear, at the expense of "lazy, feckless" Mexicans, were "justified by the context".

Back in January, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May incurred the wrath of the "world leader in the fields of refried bean cuisine, high-level corruption and giant hats"* during some lighthearted banter regarding Mexico's Mastretta MXT.

Hammond said: "Why would you want a Mexican car? 'Cos cars reflect national characteristics, don't they? So German cars are very well-built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick. Mexican cars are just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent oaf with a moustache, leaning against a fence, asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat."

May went on to describe Mexican nosh as "like sick with cheese on it", while Clarkson suggested the Mexican embassy wouldn't complain because the ambassador would be slumped asleep in the chair with the remote control.

The ambassador, Eduardo Medina-Mora Icaza, was in fact very much awake; he formally complained to the BBC and got an apology.

Ofcom "recognised that the comments made about Mexican people were based on negative national stereotypes and had the potential to be very offensive".

It did, though, rule that the remarks were not in breach of Rule 2.3 of its Broadcasting Code, which states: "In applying generally accepted standards, broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context."

The watchdog noted that Top Gear is "well-known for its irreverent style and sometimes outspoken humour" and that it "frequently uses national stereotypes as a comedic trope and that there were few, if any, nationalities that had not at some point been the subject of the presenters' mockery".

Given the audience's likely familiarity with the presenters' "mocking, playground-style humour", Ofcom suggested the majority of viewers "would therefore be likely to have understood that the comments were being made for comic effect".

The ruling concludes: "Ofcom is not an arbiter of good taste, but rather it must judge whether a broadcaster has applied generally accepted standards by ensuring that members of the public were given adequate protection from offensive material. Humour can frequently cause offence. However, Ofcom considers that to restrict humour only to material which does not cause offence would be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of expression."

The full ruling is on page 44 of this 80-page PDF (833KB). ®

Bootnote

* This summary of Mexico appears in Top Gear's review of the Mastretta MXT.

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