I suspect the vast majority of their readers are either in tune with, or entertained by, their weekly hyperbolic skewering of political correctness, and those who aren’t will merely be seeking confirmation of a long-established loathing. Neither columnist occupies the middle ground of nuanced debate about the great cultural issues of the day and that’s not their role. The market for cheek-sucking, nose-in-the-air liberalism is, and has been for years, very well served and, to my mind at least, it’s refreshing to read the views of those who really don’t give a stuff who they upset.
Except it turned out that Jeremy Clarkson did give a stuff, and he quickly back-pedalled after his recent Sun column told of his dream that Meghan Markle “is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while crowds chant, 'Shame!' and throw lumps of excrement at her” as the mercury burst the glass on the fury thermometers. “I made a clumsy reference to a scene in Game of Thrones and this has gone down badly with a great many people,” he tweeted. “I'm horrified to have caused so much hurt and I shall be more careful in future," he added, and The Sun removed the column from its website at his request.
Complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation had reached over 20,000 by the weekend and even with the Christmas break, the furore could dwarf the 25,000 complaints to the old Press Complaints Commission after a Jan Moir column in the Daily Mail attacked the lifestyle of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately following his sudden death in 2009. And that was before cancel culture was a thing.
I was a PCC commissioner at the time, and while the ruling criticised the content, it did not judge the Editors’ Code of Practice to have been breached because it was a matter of opinion, not fact. I can’t pre-judge what IPSO will do, but as taste and decency are deliberately not covered by the code, I’d be very surprised if reaches a different conclusion, especially as The Sun has apologised. Cue indignation that the regulator is useless and needs replacing by statutory controls, such as those under which broadcasters operate, because newspapers can’t police themselves.
If you believe expression of opinion needs policing you will nod in agreement, and when even the Daily Telegraph runs a column by novelist Boris Starling arguing that “just because one can say something doesn’t mean that one should”, then the pendulum appears to be swinging further away from purist arguments about freedom of speech. But going over the top is not a risk of free speech but a consequence; true freedom should include the freedom to cross a line, and if a third party attempts to define where the line should be drawn then it isn’t freedom any more.
Perhaps it is because there are already considerable limitations on what can or cannot be published, that politicians might think that a little nip and tuck here or there won’t cause much difficulty, but in boiling the press freedom frog, the UK is already beyond simmering. Apart from creeping privacy rulings which make even identifying the reasons people have been arrested vulnerable to legal action, the UK Information Commissioner John Edwards, styling his office as a journalism regulator, is proposing a new journalism code in which reporters would have to show “lawful reason” even to publish opinions about an individual’s publicly available information.
In Scotland, it took a determined campaign to include safeguards in the 2021 Hate Crime and Public Order Act, which recognised freedom of expression, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights, covered “the general principle that the right applies to… information or ideas that offend, shock or disturb”. Perhaps with the Act in mind, when asked about Clarkson’s comments, including how he hated her, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Words have consequences in that if they stir up hate against an individual then there are some people out there who would try to act on that."
She stopped short of calling for action, perhaps because it’s only two months since she told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg how she detested Tories “and everything they stand for". Not unlike Clarkson, she was subsequently forced to clarify she wasn’t referring to Conservative voters in general, so when she said she "can't imagine what it must be like to be so consumed and distorted by hate of other people”, she might have had an inkling.
Maybe because I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I have neither the imagination nor desire to see anyone being medievally humiliated and found the image it conjured disturbing rather than humorous, but breaching boundaries of taste is what using shock to make a point entails. I’m sure I’m far from alone in finding the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s self-entitled, vacuous psycho-babble girning about their dreadful lot and their “truth”, as they traverse the world in private jets from their Californian mansion, intensely irritating, to put it mildly. But I don’t want them pelted with anything, just wish she and her puppy-dog husband would pipe down and accept the only reason they enjoy a gilded lifestyle without anything approaching proper work is the luck of being members of the Royal Family.
You pays your money... and if Netflix wants to pay the Sussexes millions for their tripe, that’s as up to them, as it is for viewers to pay their Netflix subs to watch it. Similarly, it’s for The Sun whether to continue paying Jeremy Clarkson for his columns and for their readers to follow him or not. But for others to close him down would surrender a basic principle.