AFP

LONDON

Jeremy Clarkson, the controversial presenter of hit BBC programme ‘Top Gear’, said he was waiting for his suspension to ‘blow over’ as an online petition for him to be reinstated gathered more than 260,000 signatures.

‘I’m having a nice cold pint and waiting for this to blow over,’ the 54-year-old, who has been repeatedly criticised for his xenophobic comments, was quoted as saying in The Sun daily’s Wednesday edition. The BBC said on Tuesday it had suspended Clarkson and cancelled upcoming episodes of his immensely popular motoring television programme after he was involved in a ‘fracas’ with a producer. The outspoken presenter has helped ‘Top Gear’ become one of the BBC’s biggest shows, drawing 350 million viewers a week in 170 countries. The Radio Times magazine said Clarkson, who was already on a final warning over his alleged use of racist language, was accused of aiming a punch at a male producer. ‘Following a fracas with a BBC producer, Jeremy Clarkson has been suspended pending an investigation,’ the BBC said in a statement.

No sooner had the suspension been announced than fans set up a petition urging the BBC to reinstate Clarkson.

‘We the undersigned petition the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson. Freedom to fracas,’ said the online appeal at www.change.org, which had gained over 260,000 signatures by Wednesday morning. ‘I’m signing because Clarkson is a superb presenter and Top Gear is without doubt one (of) the BBC’s better programmes. The viewing figures support this,’ wrote one supporter named Peter Maxwell.

A petition for the BBC to sack him had just 800 supporters. ‘Clarkson has got away with his bigoted rantings for far too long whilst others have been sacked for less. Why do the BBC let him get away with it?’ said one signatory, Caryne Pearce.

Clarkson in February indicated he might have been unhappy with the show by tweeting: ‘Wanted: new presenter for Top Gear. Applicant should be old, badly dressed and pedantic but capable of getting to work on time.’ The BBC cancelled the broadcast of the latest episode scheduled for Sunday, in which Clarkson and co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May were to showcase classic cars.

‘Top Gear’ is one of the BBC’s biggest brands and is a major earner for the broadcaster, though it has been dogged by a series of scandals. The show’s executive producer Andy Wilman described 2014 as ‘an annus horribilis’ after accusations of racism and an incident in which the show’s crew were driven out of Argentina.

Protests broke out there over the number plate of a Porsche, ‘H982 FKL’, which was interpreted by some as a reference to the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982. Clarkson was among those forced to abandon their vehicles after an angry crowd pelted the crew with stones, but the BBC denied the registration plate was intended as a deliberate provocation. Most damaging for Clarkson have been accusations of racism while reciting an old nursery rhyme in leaked footage, something the presenter denied.

Britain’s broadcasting watchdog also criticised the BBC in July after Clarkson used an ‘offensive racial term’ in an episode on Myanmar. Regulator Ofcom said Clarkson’s use of the word ‘slope’ as slang for a person of Asian origin was potentially offensive and that the BBC had failed in its duty to viewers by broadcasting it. ‘Top Gear’ had previously got into hot water over its depictions of Albanians, Romanians and Germans, and the BBC apologised to Mexico after the show described Mexicans as ‘lazy’ and ‘feckless’.