BBC and News Corp. sharpen attacks in Top Gear scuffle

If relations between the BBC and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. deteriorate any
further, executives might soon resort to slashing each other’s tires.

Usually the BBC and News Corp., which controls the Sky
pay-television service and some of the biggest newspapers in Britain, clash
over matters like broadcasting regulations. Now they are battling over a
racecar driver, one who recently decided to take a turn as a writer.

The man in question is, or was, a minor actor on the BBC
television show “Top Gear,” in which he plays the mystery driver known as The
Stig. The BBC has zealously guarded the identity of The Stig, who never raises
his darkened visor or utters a word during the show.

“The whole point of The Stig is the mystique — the bizarre
characteristics he has, the wonderment created about what he might think, feel,
do or look like,” wrote Andy Wilman, producer of the show, in a blog entry on
the show’s Web site.

That explains the BBC’s anger when it learned that The Stig
had written a book, “The Man in the White Suit,” in which he revealed all. The
broadcaster sued, seeking an injunction to stop publication, but was rebuffed
by a British court. Now the publisher, HarperCollins, can go ahead with its
release of the book this week.

What does Mr. Murdoch have to do with any of this?
HarperCollins is owned by News Corp., as is The Sunday Times, which last month
unmasked The Stig in advance of the publication of his autobiography,
identifying him as Ben Collins, a former member of the British Army’s Special
Air Service.

On Friday, another News Corp. daily, The Sun, published an
interview with Mr. Collins in which he accused the BBC of trying to bully him
into silence. Mr. Collins said he had been treated like a second-class citizen,
working under short-term contracts and arranging his own pension and health
insurance, as the three stars of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and
James May, lorded it over him. Even the nickname The Stig was taken from the
derogatory label for new boys at the private school that Mr. Clarkson and Mr.
Wilman attended as teenagers.

Excerpts from Mr. Collins’s book appeared in The Sunday
Times over the weekend. Sky News has provided rolling coverage.

The synergies among the various News Corp. units have not
gone unnoticed at the BBC, which accused the company of mounting a coordinated
attack. The interview in The Sun “appears in a newspaper that is owned by the
same company that is publishing Ben’s book,” the BBC said. “It seems to have
been designed simply to attempt to generate further sales.”

The BBC said it was considering additional legal action,
possibly claiming damages for breach of contract or breach of confidence.

Touchy, touchy. Is the BBC, in its obsession with Mr.
Murdoch, forgetting that the popularity of “Top Gear” stems from the fact that
the show does not take itself too seriously?

The humor is of a decidedly British brand. There are stunts,
crashes and races, as well as segments in which celebrities drive low-budget
cars around a test track. All of this is livened up by schoolboy yuks about
American automobiles, women drivers, German engineers and bicycling
environmentalists.

“Top Gear” is extremely popular; Britons named it their
favorite television series of the past decade in a poll by another broadcaster,
Channel 4.

The show travels, too. It is available in more than 100
countries, including the United States, on the BBC America channel. Adaptations
of the format have been created for Australia and Russia, and a U.S. version is
set to make its debut by the end of the year.

As for the British original, it will have to figure out how
to live without Mr. Collins, who wants to start his own show — presumably not
on the BBC.

Bookmakers are taking bets on who the next Stig might be, if
the character is retained. There is speculation it could be a woman. News Corp.
employees probably need not apply.

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