Jeremy Clarkson's column about Meghan Markle: After press regulator IPSO's ruling, the slide towards censorship has got steeper – John McLellan

Until last week, taste and decency were regarded as matters for writers and editors with the repercussions of bad taste left to the market

At 65, Stephen Fry might be a bit on the young side to be considered a national treasure, but as well as being a hugely popular comic character, his role as both a campaigner for equality and an upholder of fine English traditions puts him pretty close.

As president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, he might have been caught out by bacon-and-egg tie-wearing MCC members haranguing Australian cricketers, but he too prompted their wrath last year by supporting the removal of the annual Eton vs Harrow fixture from Lord’s. He felt vindicated by last week’s damning Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report which singled out the fixture as a symbol of a sport riven by sexism, elitism and class-based discrimination.

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“I have been trying to suggest this for some years," said Fry last week. “In some ways, cricket is a bit like the Royal Family. It can appear to be a fusty, old-fashioned, pointless, ridiculous, ritualistic institution but it has always survived, by evolving just in time to keep going. Tradition is great but traditions are made by new generations, and they evolve."

Fourteen years ago, he went into bat for the family of the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, taking on the Daily Mail and inspiring some 25,000 complaints to the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about a Jan Moir column following Mr Gateley’s death in a Mallorca flat he shared with his civil partner after returning home with a third man from a night clubbing. “Under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see,” she wrote.

I was a PCC member at the time and the complaints were rejected because a censure represented “a slide towards censorship”, despite the commission saying it was “uncomfortable with the tenor of the columnist's remarks”, adding that “argument and debate are working parts of an active society and should not be constrained unnecessarily". Then PCC director Stig Abell, now carving out a successful broadcasting career, said while the article was flawed, “it would not be proportionate to rule against the columnist's right to offer freely expressed views about something that was the focus of public attention”.

Rules, like traditions, also evolve, which brings us back to the present, with the PCC’s successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), reaching a very different conclusion after a similar number of complaints about Jeremy Clarkson’s column in The Sun in which he expressed his loathing for the Duchess of Sussex in lurid terms. “I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level,” wrote the Top Gear star. “At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.”

There is no question the Duchess’s actions are the focus of public attention, or that her criticisms of the Royal Household represent a challenge to Stephen Fry’s “old-fashioned, ritualistic” institution, but IPSO found the Clarkson column breached its rules on discrimination, in which its members should avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's gender, because the only clear similarity between Meghan Markle, Nicola Sturgeon and serial killer Rose West was their sex, and he had made the duchess a “subject of humiliation and degradation”. It criticised an inference that she used her sexuality to influence her husband, his “stereotypes about women… implied that it was the Duchess’ sexuality, rather than any other attribute or accomplishment, which was the source of her power”.

There are clear differences between the two columns, particularly that Jan Moir did not express any loathing for Stephen Gately as an individual but criticised what she saw as relaxed attitudes to “dangerous” lifestyles, while Jeremy Clarkson spelt out his hatred for an individual. The Mail defended its column while The Sun and Jeremy Clarkson apologised and took down the article as the furore intensified, so both the paper and the writer accepted they had gone too far.

But what is now at stake is whether “going too far” in an opinion column is now a breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and understanding the point at which causing offence will be enough to trigger a sanction. The code’s preamble states it should be “interpreted neither so narrowly as to compromise its commitment to respect the rights of the individual, nor so broadly that it infringes the fundamental right to freedom of expression – such as to inform, to be partisan, to challenge, shock, be satirical and to entertain”. It encapsulates IPSO’s dilemma in this case, where an individual was being pilloried for her characteristics, but a censure would encroach on the freedom to challenge and shock.

I would not have written what Clarkson wrote, and in many ways the ruling is understandable, but it has created a minefield for writers of columns such as this in understanding where the line now lies. Until last week, taste and decency were always regarded as a matter for individual writers and editors, and the repercussions of bad taste and indecency left to the market, but that no longer appears to be the case. Intriguingly, the IPSO commissioners accepted the individual barbs were not breaches in isolation, but lumping, as Clarkson might have said, them together created a problem because of the cumulative effect. Would only two such jibes have been permissible? Who knows?

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The decision has done nothing to call off agitators for statutory Press regulation, which IPSO exists to prevent, yet the pressure on controversial columnists to watch what they say has unquestionably increased and, maybe only slightly, the slide towards censorship has just steepened. Australia’s cricketers only played by the rules on Sunday, the problem for the Press is knowing what they are.



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