Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
IPSO, the sham ‘self-regulator’ operated by the big press companies, has finally – after six-and-a-half months – made a ruling on Jeremy Clarkson’s article in the Sun attacking Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which prompted an unprecedented 25,100 complaints.
This was the article in which he accused her of sexually manipulating Prince Harry, compared her to the serial killer Rose West, and declared that he dreamed of seeing her paraded naked through the streets and pelted with excrement.
Of the four grounds of complaint it agreed to consider, IPSO (the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’) has upheld one, of discrimination on grounds of sex. It dismissed others relating to harassment, inaccuracy and racial discrimination.
The only penalty it has imposed is that the Sun must inform its readers of this finding, including a brief notice on its front page and its web homepage.
Belated and minimal though it is, this outcome represents a triumphant vindication for all those who complained, because IPSO’s past record leaves no doubt that it would never have upheld such a complaint had there not been a tidal wave of public anger behind it.
This is because IPSO was designed to be ineffective, and especially so in cases of discrimination. Out of something like 50,000 discrimination complaints it has received in its nine-year existence it had only previously upheld two, and it has never previously detected a single instance of sexism.
But such was the outrage in this case, and so obvious and vile was the misogyny involved, that a verdict of innocent would have exposed IPSO to a level of ridicule and contempt it would probably not have survived. Even the long delay (typical in IPSO judgements) could not have prevented that.
It is telling, however, that news of the decision came in a press release that was embargoed until late on a Friday evening – an arrangement far more likely to suit the interests of the Sun than those of the public or of those who complained.
The ruling is a reminder that IPSO, despite having been promoted to the public as “the toughest press regulator in the Western world” has no real teeth. So it will be no more than a fleeting embarrassment to the Sun, its Editor Victoria Newton, and its owner Rupert Murdoch.
In welcoming the ruling, the Fawcett Society – the complaint of which was one of two handpicked for consideration by IPSO from the 25,100 it received – called for something more than simple acknowledgement in the paper.
“There must be a thorough and transparent investigation into how on earth these toxic comments made it onto the pages of one of our biggest newspapers,” said the women’s rights group.
That is a good idea, but though such ‘standards investigations’ are nominally within IPSO’s powers, none has ever happened. The rules of the organisation, written by the big papers, render it almost impossible, just as it is impossible for IPSO to impose the £1 million fines it is supposed to have in its armoury.
So there will be no fine for the Sun and no investigation of what went wrong.
In any large organisation with a sense of public responsibility both Victoria Newton and Jeremy Clarkson would have been sacked for publishing something so vile. But six months on, both are still working for Murdoch (Clarkson also writes for The Sunday Times) and drawing huge salaries. IPSO has not changed that, though a thorough and transparent investigation might have, especially if it resulted in a big fine.
Such an investigation would inevitably show that columnists who write outrageous things without regard for the harm they cause are part of the business model of newspapers such as the Sun. They generate lucrative online traffic in a way that news and reasoned comment rarely do.
A real investigation would also take account of the Sun’s long history of abusing women. Look at the case of TV presenter Caroline Flack, hounded to her death by the press pack in 2020 with the Sun baying loudest. IPSO did nothing. And look at the long line of other women abused by the Sun: Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse, Clare Short, Jade Goody, Shamima Begum, Diane Abbott, Sharon Shoesmith, Sienna Miller – plus literally thousands of less well-known figures it has trampled under its feet.
Because IPSO is not a real regulator, because it is the toothless poodle of the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Mirror, it will never genuinely tackle the misogyny which, like so many other forms of discrimination, is in the Sun’s DNA. And sadly that means that the Sun and the others, all incapable of feeling shame, will go on abusing women after today.
The Finding Itself
As announced in its press release, IPSO’s ruling reveals just how grudging the outcome is. It states that no one remark or observation in the offending article reached the threshold for a finding of discrimination, and it was only the article “read as a whole” that breached the code of conduct.
That is remarkable. It means that if Clarkson and the Sun had only stated that he hated Meghan more than he hated Rose West, IPSO would not have found that misogynistic or discriminatory.
If he had only accused Meghan of using “vivid bedroom promises” to manipulate Prince Harry, IPSO would not have considered that misogynistic or discriminatory.
It they had only said that “she has her arm so far up his bottom, she can use her fingers to alter his facial expressions” and has complete control over what he says, IPSO would not have considered that misogynistic or discriminatory.
And – believe it or not – the same would have been true if the article had only said that Clarkson “dreams 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”.
The reality is that the bar for an IPSO finding of discrimination on grounds of sex is so high you need binoculars to detect it – and it is obvious now that you can only reach it if lifted by the moral force of 25,100 complaints.
This IPSO ruling is historic and worthy of celebration, but it reflects credit only on those who complained. If anyone tells you it proves IPSO is a real regulator or that the ruling will affect the conduct of the national press, they are talking nonsense.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He was one of the founders of the Hacked Off group for a free and accountable press. He is the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’