The Sun, Clarkson, Meghan and IPSOPrepare for Another Shaming Episode of Non-Regulation
The public is being strung along – again. No matter how outraged you were by the vicious words used against the Duchess of Sussex, nothing will change and the press will do it again, writes Brian Cathcart
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So IPSO, laughably described in news reports as the “press watchdog”, is going to ‘investigate’ whether the Sun breached its code of conduct when it published Jeremy Clarkson’s notorious attack on Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex.
Let’s manage our expectations here. It is not a watchdog and it is not going to investigate anything, still less is it ever going to apply any meaningful sanction to Rupert Murdoch’s hateful paper.
That it took eight weeks for the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’ to agree to consider such a matter tells us all we need to know about its approach – given that, within days of the article’s publication on 16 December 2022, a record 25,000 people had registered complaints.
And to be clear, in any healthy, humane media environment such an article would never have been published or, if it was, its author and the editor who published it, Victoria Newton, would instantly have been fired without any regulatory involvement at all.
But back to IPSO. What we are now observing is not the press watchdog at work but the press sandbag; the press shock-absorber – the instrument by which national newspapers dissipate the energy of public outrage.
With eight weeks to decide, it will look into the matter and on average there are four months more – yes, four months – before we will hear of an outcome: that’s called kicking a problem into the long grass.
Let’s have a quick look at how all that time is filled, because it’s instructive.
IPSO said the sheer volume of complaints was a challenge and it needed to assess them all. Well, yes and no. The problem with the article in the Sun is hardly complex. This was most notorious passage:
‘Meghan, though, is a different story. I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level. 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.’
It does not require imagination or deep knowledge of the (tellingly named) Editors’ Code of Conduct to see that this might be, in code terms, discriminatory and intimidatory – but IPSO refuses to act on its own initiative so it went through all 25,000 complaints to be sure. (Incidentally, this illustrates why it does not qualify as a regulator and is better described as a ‘trade complaint handling body’.
More than that, under its curious processes, it had to handpick one of those complaints (criteria not clear) as the representative sample on which it would go forward. It chose the one from the Fawcett Society.
Now let’s be clear what is happening or, more to the point, what is not happening. There is no investigation because IPSO sees nothing to investigate. All that will be decided is whether, in the opinion of an IPSO committee, the published words amounted to discrimination and/or intimidation.
IPSO will not ask how the Sun came to publish such a diatribe, nor will it question Newton or her senior executives or bosses, or review the editorial processes behind the Sun’s comment pages or the nature of its relationship with Clarkson.
And who will make that decision about discrimination and intimidation? IPSO and the newspapers that own it will tell you it’s an independent panel of people, but that is not true. Here’s how we know.
IPSO was created after the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, which recommended independent regulation. Based on that report, Parliament overwhelmingly approved a Royal Charter setting out detailed requirements for independent appointments to an independent regulator.
Had the big newspaper companies been sincerely committed to independent appointments they would have adopted the Charter standards. But they didn’t. They chose different processes and every deviation they made from Charter standards was made with one object in mind: to permit and protect industry influence.
The effect can be seen in almost everything IPSO does. What it calls ‘the freedom of the press’ is sacred, and even more so when it comes to the expression of opinion. The interests of the public (which journalism is supposed to serve) and of the victims of press abuses are secondary at best.
We saw this in the notorious IPSO ruling in the case of Fatima Manji, the Channel 4 News presenter abused by a Sun columnist in 2016 because she wore the hijab while reporting on an Islamist terror attack. You can read the ruling here, but the short of it was that the Sun’s freedom to say what it wanted trumped any expectation Manji may have had of freedom from discrimination and intimidation.
The chances of a different outcome in the case of the Sun and Meghan are next to nil. Out of tens of thousands of discrimination complaints over the years, IPSO has only ever upheld two. That’s because, when they designed IPSO, the newspaper bosses went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it could not obstruct their ability to abuse minorities.
As for the other ground being considered – intimidation – the IPSO case law shows that the relevant clause of the code usually applies only to what goes on during news-gathering, rather than after publication as in the Clarkson case.
So what should we expect? IPSO is aware of the weight of public expectation and it knows that a simple dismissal of the complaint will be deeply embarrassing. So it will try to sweeten the pill.
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First, as we have seen, it will take its time, so that when the moment comes the events appear more distant.
Next, it will point out that the Sun removed the article from its website and apologised, which – remarkably – IPSO usually considers a sufficient remedy in itself. That this took a week and was manifestly grudging, and that the apology was to readers but not to the Duchess of Sussex, will be overlooked.
We may also be told that Sun staff will undergo special training on avoiding misogyny. Something similar happened a year ago at the Jewish Chronicle after it engaged in an orgy of libels and inaccuracy. This is all the more likely with the Sun because the complaint selected for consideration came from the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights organisation capable of delivering such training.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Training would be good. But don’t expect it to make any difference to the conduct of the Sun (any more than it did to the Jewish Chronicle). The newspaper published the article for a reason understood at the highest level, and I’m afraid a few trainers on site won’t alter the mindset behind that.
The reality is that, even in the unlikely event that IPSO actually ruled against the Sun, it would not make any difference – the Sun has shown that it is perfectly capable of raising two fingers to IPSO and carrying on regardless.
The only sanction that might make a difference at this stage is a large and shaming fine and, though IPSO claims to have fines in its armoury, it is impossible for it to impose one, in this case or any other.
So that will be that. If you were angry at Jeremy Clarkson, now be angry at IPSO – a disgraceful organisation that betrays both the public and decent journalism. We deserve better, and better is perfectly possible, just as it is possible to enjoy freedom of expression while protecting individuals and minorities from hate speech.
Look at IMPRESS, the genuinely independent regulator established in conformity with the Leveson recommendations and with Parliament’s Royal Charter of 2013. The big papers shun it, precisely because it has a code and also the tools to make those distinctions and provide those protections. It now regulates an army of smaller publishers which see its advantages, and their journalists do not complain of its oversight.
Would IMPRESS have found the Sun guilty of misogyny and intimidation? I bet it would, and by now.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He is one of the founders of the press reform group ‘Hacked Off’