Archive for February 2007

In Defence of Top Gear

February 14, 2007


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This week, I did something a bit different.

Till this point, all I’d really done was get up there and tell a silly story. Indeed, that is what I’d been planning for the this week’s speech too.

Until, that is, I talked with Nina at our annual “Tall Tales” contest. Nina was to be Toastmaster for the evening, and she encouraged me, suggesting I try something a little more challenging.

And I thought about it.

I thought it would be nice to put forward a point of view, to argue in favour of something, but all I could come up with was a contentious topic – though one I felt quite strongly about.

Many people at the club have given strong speeches about the environmental issue and the negative impact we humans are having on our world. While I’m certainly not against that, I do feel this argument sometimes goes too far. I felt there was possibly an interesting, alternate point of view to present here. However, I was a bit worried that speaking out would rub one or two people the wrong way.

Again, Nina really helped. She called me up and told me that I could go for it. She said I should do something a bit contentious, if I felt like it – why not?

In the end, I really wanted to bring in the environmental debate, but perhaps not directly. So I decided to focus my speech on defending Top Gear, one of my favourite TV shows. I would never have had the confidence without Nina.

Top Gear has had a lot of criticism lately. Being a show about fast cars, not only does it often come out on the wrong side of the environmental debate, but a presenter was nearly killed last year, in a high speed jet car. This caused an outcry. Many people had argued in the press at the time that the show should be stopped.

Well, thought I, in my speech I would argue why the programme should not be banned.

With all my concerns, though, it was a difficult speech to construct. I began by identifying 3 key things people dislike or complain about Top Gear, so I could address them in turn:

  1. Irresponsible Use of Speed
  2. The Environmental Impact of Fast Cars
  3. Jeremy Clarkson (one of the presenters)

I thought putting Clarkson down as a main complaint all by himself would be funny. And it did get my first laugh, and helped lighten the mood a bit.

In defending the show’s “irresponsible use of speed”, I argued that it all came down to freedom – freedom of choice and freedom of information. Surely, as long as these fast cars remain legal, it should be legal to drive them fast on a race track? And, as long as it is legal to drive them, it should be legal to show them on TV too?

TV presenters should be free to choose whether or not they want to do such dangerous things as drive fast cars. After all, sky diving is dangerous, yet presenters do that. Even golf is dangerous, so where do we draw the line?

Likewise, the programme makers should be free to report on it. After all, we’re free to choose too – we can choose whether or not we want to watch.

It seemed to go down OK, so that brought me to the second argument – the environmental issue. I knew this was the point that would make or break the whole speech.

I began by stating that the world is getting hotter – and agreeing that this is almost indisputable. It is equally clear that many people blame the car. However, cars are still legal, I argued, so it is only fair that we be allowed to show them on TV. Surely, we should ban the fast cars themselves first, before looking to ban the TV programme?

Here, I got very lucky. When doing my research, I found this report, showing that livestock actually accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of human transport added together. I put it this way:

But before we do ban the car, let’s first check the evidence.

Now, I’ve done some research on this and there’s a United Nations report which was published late last year. It turns out that a full 9% of CO2 emissions do, indeed, come from…

…the cow!

It took the audience by surprise, and (to my surprise) it really got them laughing out loud.

By the time I had pointed out that cows account for a third of the world’s methane emissions (a third!), most of them were rolling about laughing. I hadn’t intended it to be so funny.

This had been the hardest part of the speech to write, the part I’d been most worried about. All week, I had worried I would seriously damage my reputation in the club, that they would mark me down as an environment ruiner. I certainly didn’t want it to appear I did not take the issue seriously.

And yet, on the day, I could see I had somehow won them over – most of them, at least. At the very least, I could see the audience felt I’d put forward a fair case – albeit in a glib and silly way.

For my third point of complaint, the presenter Jeremy Clarkson, I introduced him by linking in to “cow emissions” (which brought a few groans). After this, I told them:

Some people say Clarkson is a big buffoon of a man, a man who always likes to trivialize the most serious issues.

This would be very disturbing – if you took him seriously.

But why would anyone take Jeremy Clarkson seriously? After all, he once described a slow car as having “all the acceleration of Henry the Eighth” – this is hardly serious journalism!

Well, the audience were still laughing from the cow debate and this gave them fuel to laugh even more. It doesn’t seem that funny on paper; I think I could have said almost anything at this point and they would’ve laughed.

At the end, I came back to my main theme – about freedom of choice and freedom of speech. I closed by saying that I find Clarkson amusing, but if there are people that don’t, that’s fine. They don’t have to watch the show, if they don’t like it.

They can always watch something else. Or they can tell me they think the show is rubbish, and tell me why. I’ve no problem with that.

But I argued that I love the show and they shouldn’t stop me from watching. They shouldn’t ban Top Gear. Let me decide for myself.

As it happens, Lakshmi, my line manager from work, and his wife, Sudhu, had come along to the club that night as guests. It was the first time I had ever given a speech in front of someone I knew from outside Toastmasters. They certainly gave me lots of support and encouragement: before, during and after the speech.

It was my scariest speech yet – but also my most deeply satisfying.

The night before, I’d been up all night and had hardly slept at all – a real bag of nerves. After the speech itself, when I eventually got to bed, I still couldn’t get to sleep. This time, sheer adrenaline was keeping me awake. I’ve never known a buzz like it.