Top Gear's top controversies

As Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear's production team are forced to flee Argentina after an apparent Falkland War reference sparks protests, we look back at some more of the BBC2 show's most controversial moments...

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Top Gear's top controversies
Written By
Emma Daly

Clarkson in hot water over cow on roof

During the 2007 America Special edition of Top Gear, Clarkson tied a dead cow to the roof of his Camaro. The presenter was seen reversing the car and flinging the cow off. Ofcom confirms a total of 16 complaints were logged. The day after the show’s broadcast a BBC spokesman said: "We've had just over 80 complaints about the dead cow on the roof for an audience averaging 6m viewers.

"Viewers are well aware of the type of humour on 'Top Gear 'and this was very typical of its irreverent humour. However, no offence was intended." 


Trio in trouble for comments about Mexico

When the Top Gear trio discussed Mexican cars in January 2011, they found themselves in hot water with 157 complaints to Ofcom by April of the same year, with numerous more to the BBC. Hammond said that cars reflect national characteristics, meaning Mexican cars were "just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat". May said Mexican food is "like sick with cheese on it" while Clarkson confirmed they wouldn’t receive any complaints after the show because the “ambassador is going to be sitting there with a remote control like this [snoring]. They won't complain, it's fine."

While the programme was found not to have breached Ofcom codes - stating that "Top Gear is well known for its irreverent style and sometimes outspoken humour" - the BBC upheld complaints ruling that while the remarks were meant to be humorous, they gave "the impression of reinforcing, rather than ridiculing, the stereotype".


India Special causes offence

Top Gear’s 2012 India Special included, among other things, Clarkson building a toilet into the back of a Jaguar saying, “This is perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots”. Ofcom confirms twenty complaints were logged, while the Indian High Commission itself complained that the show was “replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity that we expect from the BBC.”

In a statement on the BBC's complaints website, it said: There's a vast difference between showing a country, warts and all, and insulting it."

Top Gear added the programme was "filled with incidents but none of them were an insult to the Indian people or the culture of the country".


Smoking in the studio angers campaigners

Top Gear was criticised by anti-smoking campaigners after May and Clarkson lit Porsche-designed pipes in the studio during a 2007 episode.

A BBC spokeswoman said two days after the show aired that the show had received just a couple of viewer complaints and that no one in the audience had complained after filming.

“We are very upfront about the style and tone of the show, so viewers know what to expect,” she added.

Ofcom confirms it had no complaints. According to the Telegraph May said, "If you're going to prosecute me for smoking a pipe in a studio... I'd like to ask a court why nobody's done anything about the bloke who nicked my telly."


Clarkson apologises after Gordon Brown comments

During a live Q&A with the Top Gear presenters in Australia in 2009, Clarkson called Prime Minister Gordon Brown “a one-eyed Scottish idiot”.

Clarkson said, "In the heat of the moment I made a remark about the Prime Minister's personal appearance for which, upon reflection, I apologise."

He later told the Sun newspaper that he "very specifically apologised for making fun of his personal appearance - very specifically. I haven't apologised for calling him an idiot."


‘Shooting’ the Stig an unpopular move

The BBC revealed there had been a ‘considerable number’ of complaints after a 2010 episode saw the three presenters shoot cardboard cut-outs of their resident racing driver Stig. The segment included the motoring experts discussing which of their cars would be best for carrying out such a drive by shooting, earning different points depending on where on the body they hit him.

Ofcom confirms it received 19 complaints and wrote back to individual complainants informing them this would be recorded as a 'no breach'.


Spoof Volkswagen advert in breach

During the final episode of the thirteenth series of Top Gear in August 2009, a spoof advertisement for a Volkswagen car advert that showed a man committing suicide with a gunshot to the head.  

Ofcom received 50 complaints by November, marking it as too graphic and unsuitable for the 20:00pm time of broadcast.

The BBC said it believed the scene was limited by “the ludicrous and obviously comic depiction of the suicide”. 

However, Ofcom ruled the show was in breach of rule 1.11 saying viewers "would not have expected such a violent scene to appear" adding that on balance “there was no editorial justification for its inclusion”. 


Lorry load of trouble

In 2008 Clarkson tried his hand at lorry driving saying it was a hard job that consisted of "change gear; change gear; change gear; check your mirrors; murder a prostitute…” asking, "What matters to lorry drivers? Murdering prostitutes? Fuel economy?”  

Ofcom received 339 complaints by December, but found the show not to be in breach of the code, writing that "the presenter was clearly using exaggeration to make a joke, albeit not to everyone’s taste.” 


Slope-gate

In 2014 Clarkson's used of the racial slur “slope” was found to be in breach of the Ofcom code.

The regulator has ruled that Clarkson flouted its rules by using “an offensive racial term” on an edition of the show broadcast on BBC2. The programme featured a segment showing the hosts looking at a bridge they had built on the River Kwai as a local man walked across it.

Clarkson remarked: "That is a proud moment. But there's a slope on it."

Co-presenter Richard Hammond replies: “You are right...[pointing]...it is definitely higher on that side.”


The N-word

Also in 2014, Clarkson was forced to vigorously deny allegations that he used the word “n****r” in un-broadcast Top Gear footage.

A video showed Clarkson standing between two cars, a Toyota GT86 and a Subaru BRZ, attempting to decide which car to test drive. He then begins to recite the opening section of the nursery rhyme, “Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe…” before appearing to mumble “… catch a n****r by the toe.”

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