The Top Gear Falklands row has reared its ugly head again, Jeremy Clarkson’s hopes of putting the infamous Top Gear Falklands row behind him were dashed last night after a court probe was reopened in Argentina. A judge in the southern city of Ushuaia had thwarted attempts to have the former BBC presenter charged with falsification in April after the controversial number-plate on the Porsche he drove was swapped ahead of a riot.
But state prosecutors appealed Maria Cristina Barrionuevo’s decision not to press ahead with a full-scale criminal investigation against Clarkson and his ex-Top Gear team. Last night the probe was back on, with and Clarkson and programme chiefs facing a worst case scenario of three years in prison – after three appeal judges sided with prosecutors and ordered Barrionuevo to reactivate the case.
The decision raises the real prospect of the high-profile presenter and his former Top Gear co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May being summoned to give evidence in the city they fled in October last year before programme technicians and camera crews were caught in violent disturbances as they tried to escape to Chile.
Falklands war veteran Osvaldo Hillar, who prompted the court probe by filing an official complaint over the number-plate change on Clarkson’s car, has already been called to give evidence.
The motormouth presenter sparked anger last year after driving through Argentina on a 1,400-mile road trip for a Top Gear Christmas special in a silver Porsche with the number plate H982 FKL on it.
War vets accused Clarkson, who once drove through an Indian slum in a Jaguar fitted with a toilet, of goading them over the Falklands.
An Argentine politician also claimed that the digits 269 on the number plate of the Lotus Esprit James Maty drove were close to the 255 Britons killed during the war – and the numbers 646 on Hammond’s Ford Mustang could be taken as a reference to the 649 Argentinian casualties.
The Top Gear team ended up having to cut short filming and flee the country with a police escort after being told to leave by angry locals who stormed their five-star hotel in Ushuaia and threatened to kill him.
Clarkson and his co-hosts flew to the capital Buenos Aires before returning to Britain.
Nearly 30 other members of the film crew were stoned as they headed for Chile by road and had to abandon Clarkson’s Porsche and the other two cars by the side of the road.
The furore sparked a diplomatic incident with Argentina’s ambassador Alicia Castro calling the H982 FKL plate “malicious mockery” of those who fought in the 1982 Falklands War.
Maria Cristina Barrionuevo rubbished claims by the BBC and the controversial presenter the use of the plate H982 FKL on Clarkson’s infamous Porsche was an “unfortunate coincidence.”
She also dubbed the decision to drive through southern Argentina with the vehicle “arrogant and disrespectful.”
But she rejected calls to launch an official probe into the Top Gear team over the number plate change, concluding programme chiefs had acted to avert more conflict and had not been motivated by “bad faith.”
The three appeal judges nullified her decision and ordered her to reopen the case – at the request of state prosecutor Daniel Curtale – after a private hearing in the nearby city of Rio Grande.
One, Julian de Martino, described her decision in their joint ruling as “premature” and said her arguments were “insufficient to reject the criminal hypothesis outlined by state prosecutors.”
Prosecutors claim the Top Gear team committed a crime under article 289 of the Argentinian Penal Code which carries a prison sentence of between six months and three years for those who “falsify, alter or suppress the number of an object registered in accordance with the law.”
Former Top Gear executive producer Andy Wilman admitted they had removed the offending plate and put up the H1 VAE plate to quell growing unrest in a blog shortly after his return to Britain.
The BBC has consistently denied suggestions the Porsche was bought for its number plate, or the number plate was changed after it was purchased.
Mrs Barrionuevo concluded in April in the ruling which has now been nullified that the Porsche number plate was swapped “with the aim of ending the main focus of conflict and avoiding violent reactions by locals which indeed ended up taking place.”
She added: “The change was not done in a surreptitious way, but with the knowledge and approval of the presenters who participated in meetings with the programme producers.”
Former Top Gear script editor Richard Porter also claims in a new book the Jeremy Clarkson car was not the deliberate slur many think it was.
“Hand on heart, I can’t say this enough, it wasn’t deliberate,” he said.
“The original concept was to build a small town at the most southerly settlement, and the car bit came belatedly, because there was no obvious car.”
Insisting the appropriate car was found online and shipped to Argentina without the producers having set eyes on it, he added: “When we saw the ad, the plates had been blanked out.
“The first we saw them was in South America, which was when they were spotted by a South American website, who published the pictures.
“We were back in London and we thought, ‘Oh no.”