Most internal investigative processes are conducted in relative confidence and with as much discretion as possible. No such luxury for the BBC, forced (I will come back to that word) to carry out its process with Jeremy Clarkson in the full public gaze well before it can do so internally.
Clarkson, already on a final written warning for the unbroadcast use of racist language, is accused of having punched a producer in a row over catering on a shoot in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He has brushed the allegation away, though if things follow the pattern set by his response to the racist remark allegation, his position will slide slowly from I didn’t hit him to I did hit him but only very gently to I did hit him despite doing my best not to. http://www.employmentlawworldview.com/press-campaign-gets-into-top-gear/. In any event, he seems from reports to be as unconcerned as you would expect of an instantly and internationally re-employable multi-millionaire without whom the BBC’s very lucrative Top Gear franchise is effectively dead.
What no one outside the BBC yet knows, including the Daily Mirror in which details of the suspension have been droolingly reported, is what actually happened here. Inevitably that has not deterred the jurors in the Court of Public Opinion who have split into the usual camps of seeking his deportation on the one hand and his canonisation on the other. The BBC, ironically, reports 300,000 signatures in scarcely 24 hours to a petition for his reinstatement, not something the average employer has to take into consideration. However, the reality is that we do not know if there was a punch at all (a pretty serious allegation to make without evidence, one would think), if it was provoked or accidental or just playful jostling or exactly how bad the catering actually was. We do not know if the producer in question even complained about it, or whether it was an “innocent bystander”, as in the racist remark issue.
All of which leads to the question of why the Beeb chose immediately to suspend Clarkson and take Top Gear off air, knowing (as it must) that this would be instantly newsworthy. As a result, it has surely painted itself into a very difficult corner. It cannot meaningfully impose another warning and so is now effectively required either to back down in a very public way, or to dismiss.
Neither option will be remotely attractive to the BBC unless it has other reasons to want Clarkson gone. If it were looking merely to investigate a single allegation with a minimum of fuss, this could surely have been done via one meeting with him, one with the “victim” and one with any witnesses if the facts were then still in dispute. The whole thing could have taken half a day, with the Nuclear Button of suspension pushed only once that investigation had concluded that there was indeed a disciplinary case to answer. At that time, combining the extant final written warning and the inherent seriousness of assaulting a colleague, there would certainly have to be a real question mark over Clarkson’s continued employment and a public suspension would be far more appropriate. Here it appears from the Press that the investigation is still to come, creating some raised eyebrows (including, some say, from a former Stig) over the timing of the suspension. In Mr Clarkson’s shoes I would be tempted to suspect some element of witch-hunt, or as a minimum an attempt to turn public opinion against me as a prelude to a severance at a later stage. If that were the motivation, however, a supportive petition of this size and speed would suggest the tactic to have gone off at the first corner really quite badly.