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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 April, 2005, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
'Petrolheads' under attack
Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Top Gear presenters
Eco enemies? Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond

Environmental campaigners have called for the BBC's Top Gear programme to be scrapped as they claim it promotes irresponsible driving. But how fair is this criticism?

For many motoring enthusiasts it is among the highlights of the television week.

But, with its irreverent style and penchant for high-speed stunts, Top Gear attracts fans and critics in equal measure.

Now the BBC Two programme has come under fire from the Transport 2000 pressure group, which has called for it to be taken off the air and replaced with a show that promotes "sensible driving in sensible vehicles".

Top Gear is no stranger to controversy.

It is irresponsible, out-dated television designed to give comfort to boy racers, 'petrolheads' and those from the 'get out of my way' school of driving
Steve Hounsham
Transport 2000

Last year the programme took a 4x4 vehicle up Ben Tongue mountain in Scotland, reportedly churning up heather and sensitive peat on the way, and causing substantial ecological damage. The programme denies these allegations.

A few months earlier the BBC was forced to apologise after the programme's team tested the durability of a truck by ramming it into a 30-year-old chestnut tree, infuriating locals in the Somerset village of Churchill.

Transport 2000, which is committed to reducing the environmental and social effects of transport, argues that Top Gear falls short in its responsibility to educate viewers and acknowledge the interests of women drivers.

"We want to see Top Gear taken off the screens," says Steve Hounsham, of Transport 2000.

"It is irresponsible, out-dated television designed to give comfort to boy racers, 'petrolheads' and those from the 'get out of my way' school of driving.

"This is not about censorship or having a poor sense of humour, it's about what is in the public interest. You can provide entertainment without it being mindless and irresponsible."

Rover marque
Clarkson is said not to be a fan of the British car-maker

But Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond believes the attacks are unwarranted.

"These people clearly haven't watched the programme," he says.

"Top Gear is an entertaining show, for people that are interested in cars, that is driven by people who have been motoring journalists for many, many years."

The presenter stressed that Top Gear aims to provide "entertaining television" for motoring enthusiasts, whereas the programme mooted by Transport 2000 "wouldn't be watched for more than a week".

"If their idea of a motoring programme is a good one, and it is fair and balanced, they should try to make it. That does not mean that Top Gear should be scrapped. There is plenty of room on public service television for other motoring programmes."

A BBC spokesman also defended the show, saying: "Top Gear takes issues of safety very seriously and none of our presenters advocate or encourage speeding or dangerous driving.

'Deriding' Rover

"The reason we have the test track [which stages high speed tests] is so that any high powered cars can be driven in a safe and controlled environment."

"Top Gear gets a regular audience of three million, nearly half of which are female," said the spokesman.

"A broad range of motoring issues are discussed including road safety to the latest models available".

Meanwhile, controversy about the programme has spilled over into the pages of the Daily Telegraph, with one reader partly blaming the show's chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, for the company's troubles, because of his derisive reviews of Rover cars.

It's not the first time Clarkson's comments about Rover have been interpreted as unpatriotic - his previous comparison of the Rover 75 to a "vicar's elbow patch" met with a similar response in the pages of the Birmingham Post. In 2003, Top Gear magazine named the Rover 25 as the "least cool car of all time".

But Mr Hammond, who expressed sadness at Rover's woes, denied any bias, stressing that a wide range of vehicles appear on the show and are reviewed in a "fair and balanced" manner.

"If we drive a Rover and think it is rubbish, no matter how much we want the company to survive, we have to tell the truth," he says, while adding that many cars made by the company had received favourable reviews on the programme.


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