For me the key thing is that along with the right to offend there is always the right to be offended. Those who've gone out of their way to be casually offensive, or even if they've put great thought into the hurt that they've caused, should understand that it's no good throwing up your hands in horror when the chickens come home to roost.
That doesn't mean that everyone who's offended is right to be, or has things in proportion, but it does mean that faux shock that anyone should object to the things that you've said is not something I give much credence to. Personally I think there are worse things in the world than being offended, particularly if it's some general offense rather than someone being personally obnoxious, but it's a natural reaction sometimes.
Carol Thatcher's golliwog remarks are completely unremarkable coming from a supporter of the backwards part of a reactionary ideology - but her "I was only joking" stance, where the joke appears only to have been in the wheeling out two tired racial stereotypes (calling a black tennis player with French connections a "frog golliwog") is less offensive than it is fatuous.
Unfortunately she wasn't sacked from the BBC but simply wont be welcome back at the One Show. Not for the casual racism you understand, but for her complete refusal to accept she was in breach of the behaviour that's expected in the workplace. Less thought police and more ensuring the BBC, as an employer, is not allowing racism a free reign in the institution. Not political correctness but a rejection of bigotry in a diverse workforce. Fair enough to my mind.
The "only a joke" excuse is not just the fall back position of hardened twats everywhere, it completely misses the point that the so called humour aspect of the abuse makes it worse, not better. It's not friendly banter between friends but the off hand put down of the contemptuous laugh.
Which brings me onto Clarkson. Clarkson, Clarkson, Clarkson. Sigh.
Now, I didn't even know that Gordon Brown had a problem with one of his eyes and assumed the "one eyed" part of his remarks displayed an unusual wit, albeit X-rated wit, for the buffoon. I just thought he was calling the man a cock in an original way but, alas, it was simply an attack on his disability. Disappointingly, this was a sign of nothing more than a fetid set of values.
However, what Clarkson said is quite interesting in itself. According to The Independent;
Smooth? Brown? Are we sure he was talking about the person we thought he was?
Speaking in Sydney, Clarkson compared Mr Brown to the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, after Mr Rudd had just addressed the country on the global financial crisis.
He said: "It's the first time I've ever seen a world leader admit we really are in deep shit. He genuinely looked terrified. The poor man, he's actually seen the books. [In the UK] we've got this one-eyed Scottish idiot, he keeps telling us everything's fine and he's saved the world, and we know he's lying, but he's smooth at telling us."
Anyway, he's been let off because he's apologised for having a go at Brown's disability, as he should, and I'm a firm believer that genuine apologies are meaningful things. However, Clarkson has form and he's unlikely to change his ways anytime soon.
He's protected because, unlike Thatcher, he's talented (despite using his powers for evil) and is an asset to the corporation, bringing in viewers. Thatcher is completely replaceable and has never said anything as remotely interesting as Clarkson, even when he's not on form.
Of course, that's the problem. Thatcher wont even be a footnote in the big book of fools, Clarkson will have to have an entire chapter to cover the distortions, the abuse, the sneering, the misogyny... the list goes on. He's employed for his ability to say shocking things in an "amusing" way, so they're hardly likely to sack him for it when he misjudges the mood, but of the two he's the one who does the most damage through his access to the air waves.
Right or wrong Clarkson's outburst is far closer to what many people might find to be an acceptable part of banter, on this occasion, than Thatcher's dogmatic and unimaginative racism. We expect him to offend because it's part of his job and perhaps that's what should be giving us pause rather than the qualities of the man it's how he is employed to use them.