On Number plates and Nationalism

According to the Facebook “Trending” section, the Top Gear team’s ousting from Buenos Aires is “a big deal”. The Top Gear team and Jeremy Clarkson appear to court controversy and headlines, so I would dare to suggest it is becoming less of “a big deal” as time goes on, but here we are.

The Porsche 928 Jeremy Clarkson drove with its offending number plate.

Number Plates

The team took three British cars over to Argentina including a Porsche 928 with the registration “H982 FKL”. I’m going to be honest and say I saw the number plate “H982 FKL” and immediately associated it with the Falkland Islands and I didn’t live through the conflict. If I was a British citizen and wanted a quiet, uncomplicated visit to Argentina, I would not have taken a car with this number plate, let alone if I was Jeremy Clarkson, a not-uncontroversial figure in Britain or the rest of the world.

Many Argentinians hounded the Top Gear team and threw bricks and stones at them until they fled, leaving their filming incomplete and the three cars abandoned at the side of the road.

What Clarkson tweeted is technically true from the point of view of the motor industry: the number plate is perfectly legal and according to internet research by interested members of the public, this Porsche 928 has had this number plate since 2001. The number plate was not bought specifically for this car by the Top Gear team, who purchased the vehicle in early August 2014. Click through the Instant Car Check data here.

This is a perfectly road-legal car with a coincidental number plate that had been given permission to drive in Argentina. This was backed up by both Jeremy Clarkson and Andy Wilman, his executive producer:

“Top Gear production purchased three cars for a forthcoming programme; to suggest that this car was either chosen for its number plate, or that an alternative number plate was substituted for the original, is completely untrue.”

Andy Wilman, Top Gear’s executive producer.

However I believe this vehicle was either bought specifically, or at least taken to Argentina because of its coincidental number plate. By the time the car was bought on 8 August 2014, they knew it would be going to Argentina. I would suggest that anyone with a vague inkling of what took place in 1982 would get the reference as soon as they saw the number plate, whether in the UK or Argentina. I did, and I wasn’t alive in 1982. The three main presenters were between the ages of 12 and 21 by the war’s outbreak on 2 April 1982 and the fact that they and a host of other BBC employees needed information about the number plate pointing out to them before they changed it, after arriving in Argentina strikes me as incredibly implausible.

The car was taken because of its association with the Falklands War, perhaps with the hope of referring to it in a 10 second joke on-camera in Argentina, or when the team was back in the UK. Sadly for them the Argentinians were immediately incensed by it and Clarkson and the Top Gear team were forced to claim it a coincidence.

This isn’t the first time that the Top Gear team has courted controversy and stereotyping with the vehicles taken to destinations around the world to poke fun at the inhabitants or get a cheap laugh. If we look at what the team did to their vehicles whilst in Alabama, USA during a Series 9 special broadcast in 2007, the use of this number plate appears relatively nuanced and more easily explained away. Yet it still aimed to get a rise from, and dared to be attacked by, far-right members of the local people, something that some Argentinians were more than happy to do.

Nationalism

The Argentinians used violence when they shouldn’t have. Violence such as this is not a form of protest when people could have been hurt or killed, indeed, a local fixer for the programme was injured. A series of alpha-numeric characters attached to the front and back of a vehicle should not have resulted in the hurling of bricks and stones or the mayor of Rio Grande, the regional capital, reportedly banning the vehicles from the city and declaring the crew “personas non gratas” following demands from military veterans’ groups. Many Argentinians overreacted and it was wrong. But anyone who has been following any news about Argentina lately could tell you that would have been a likely outcome. From the President down, the Argentinian government will use anything that can unite the people against a common enemy, with gusto, to redirect discontent felt by Argentinians about the socio-economic situation in the country.

One only needs to look at the January 2012 arrival of the ARA Libertad which had been seized in October 2012 by the Ghanaian High Court over debts owed to a US-based Hedge fund. Its return to Buenos Aires prompted what the BBC called an “enthusiastic welcome” and John Oliver comments on in this video:

Argentina uses these nationalist distractions wherever possible, whether against the USA, which is claimed to be attempting to oust President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, or the UK, which the President alleges has placed nuclear weapons on the Falklands Islands and accuses the British of provoking Argentina when it held military exercises on the Falkland Islands around the anniversary of the Falklands War itself. Yet Argentina could hardly be described as a blameless victim when it prints bank notes with images of Las Malvinas and refuses to allow entry to UK-flagged ships which have previously moored at the Falkland Islands, and even those which have not, due to its “Gaucho Rivero” Law passed to create difficulties for UK-based shipping, and named for Antonio Rivero, an Argentinian patriotic folk hero who fought against the British inhabitants of the Falkland Islands.

Whatever poor or reckless decisions led to the situation the Top Gear team found themselves in whilst filming in Argentina, Jeremy Clarkson’s reference to “political capital” here is absolutely correct. The Argentinian government will have taken as much political capital as was available. It was Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Top Gear team at the BBC who were foolish enough to give it to them.

Edit: Proven wrong. The car was bought specifically because of the model, rather than the number plate. I do still think the BBC were mistaken for not realising the impact of the number plates in advance of going to Argentina, however it looks to be an accident the car in question had those plates.


Originally published on 7 October 2014 at www.dcxiii.com.