Jeremy Clarkson’s Sun column about his “hate” for Meghan Markle – the Duchess of Sussex – “on a cellular level” breached the Editors’ Code of Practice, press regulator IPSO has ruled.
Although it had already taken down the article and apologised – as had Clarkson – before IPSO began to investigate, The Sun argued the complaints related to “taste and judgment” and so fell outside IPSO’s remit.
However, the publisher must now flag the adjudication against it on its front page, IPSO has decided after a six-month investigation.
The article prompted more than 25,100 complaints from the public – making it the most-complained about ever – but IPSO specifically investigated two of them: the submissions from The Fawcett Society, a gender equality charity and the WILDE Foundation, which supports female domestic abuse victims.
IPSO’s ruling represents a rare example of a breach of the code under Clause 12 (discrimination), which is usually restricted to stories about individuals rather than groups that are subject to pejorative stories.
Clause 12 states: “The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.”
However, IPSO decided that complaints by the two women’s organisations “represented groups of people who had been affected” by the alleged breach, which they said was “significant” and meant there was a “substantial public interest” in the complaint being considered. In addition, Meghan indicated to IPSO that she had no opposition to the complaints being considered.
The regulator ultimately decided that the Clause 12 breach was at the “more serious end of the spectrum” because of its “particularly vivid” imagery making Meghan the “subject of humiliation and degradation”.
What did Jeremy Clarkson write about Meghan Markle in The Sun?
In the article, headlined “A Woman Talking Bollocks”, Clarkson wrote: “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.”
IPSO said the only clear thing Meghan, ex-SNP leader Sturgeon and serial killer West have in common is that they are all women, and added that Clarkson’s “dream” made the duchess a “subject of humiliation and degradation”.
Clarkson also said of Meghan’s relationship with her husband, Prince Harry: “Along came Meghan, who obviously used some vivid bedroom promises to turn him into a warrior of woke. And now it seems she has her arm so far up his bottom, she can use her fingers to alter his facial expressions.”
The IPSO complaints committee said this was a “reference to stereotypes about women using their sexuality to exert influence, and also implied that it was the Duchess’ sexuality – rather than any other attribute or accomplishment – which was the source of her power”.
And he said: “…younger people, especially girls, think she’s pretty cool. They think she was a prisoner of Buckingham Palace, forced to talk about nothing but embroidery and kittens.” IPSO said this highlighted her position as a “female role model”.
IPSO’s complaints committee decided that all of these references to her gender and sexuality “might not” individually represent a breach of the Editors’ Code but together “served to highlight the Duchess’ sex while the article also used humiliating imagery which played on negative stereotypes about women”.
This was therefore a “pejorative and prejudicial reference” to her being a woman, and a breach of Clause 12, the committee said.
However the committee decided there had been no breach of Clause 12 on race grounds – deciding the phrase “warrior of woke” was not a pejorative reference to Meghan’s race, Clause 3 (harassment) – because it was a single article and there was no evidence about how it had affected her specifically, or Clause 1 (accuracy) – because it was clearly a comment piece and therefore Clarkson was able to use conjecture.
IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar said: “The Editors’ Code of Practice protects the right of commentators to challenge, to shock, be satirical and entertain, but it states that the press must avoid discriminatory references towards an individual.
“By holding publications to account, we promote the standards of journalism set out in the Editors’ Code of Practice. We will take action where these standards are not met, such as in this article which contained pejorative and prejudicial language in an article discussing a woman.”
What did The Sun say about the Clarkson article?
The Sun complained to IPSO’s independent complaints reviewer about the process of making this decision, but this request was dismissed with the reviewer saying the process had not been flawed.
The Sun had told IPSO that the article had “fallen short of its high editorial standards and should not have been published” but argued “matters of subjective taste are not for the code”.
Referring to Clarkson, it said the column had been “written by a polemicist known for employing hyperbolic language and imagery” and that “an objective and reasonable reader” would understand that he was attacking the actions and conduct of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex rather than Meghan specifically because of her gender or race.
The newspaper agreed with the two campaigning groups’ rights to hold their opinions about the meaning of the article, but said IPSO could “only make its decision based on the plain-meaning of the words, rather than by making assumptions about the writer’s motivation – which, it said, would veer into making a decision based on ‘psychic divination'”, according to the IPSO ruling.
The Sun also disputed that the phrases mentioned from the article were gendered, but said that “even if IPSO were to consider that these were gendered references which applied exclusively to women – which it disputed – it did not follow that these phrases were pejorative or prejudicial references to the Duchess’ sex”.
The Sun said in a statement to coincide with IPSO’s ruling: “After Jeremy Clarkson’s column was published in December, both The Sun and Jeremy Clarkson apologised. We said we regretted publishing the article and removed it from our website.
“The Sun accepts that with free expression comes responsibility.
“Half of The Sun’s readers are women and we have a very long and proud history of campaigning for women which has changed the lives of many.
“The Sun is committed to its work campaigning to strengthen legislation on domestic abuse, helping to provide beds in refuges and empowering survivors of abuse to seek help. Our most recent campaign, Baby Bank on Us, is raising money to help women struggling with the alarming costs of living and a newborn baby.”
The Sun must flag IPSO adjudication on front page
Having been ruled against, The Sun was ordered to publish an adjudication and flag the print version on its front page “at a size and location to be agreed with IPSO in advance”.
The newspaper did voluntarily publish an apology for the article on page six of the Christmas Eve edition, a week after its original publication in Clarkson’s usual spot on page 17, in response to the outrage over it.
Clarkson had also individually apologised on Twitter, saying: “Oh dear. I’ve rather put my foot in it. In a column I wrote about Meghan, I made a clumsy reference to a scene in Game of Thrones and this has gone down badly with a great many people. I’m horrified to have caused so much hurt and I shall be more careful in future.”
However IPSO said the page six apology had not been prominent enough and did not address the references to Meghan’s gender.
The adjudication itself should be published on page 17, in the same place as the original column. But IPSO said: “Front page and front cover corrections are generally reserved for more serious cases, wherever the breach appears in the publication. Due prominence is not the same as equal prominence.
“The Committee considered carefully the full range of sanctions open to it, including whether the adjudication itself should be published on the front page. However, taking all the relevant considerations into account, the Committee concluded that flagging the print adjudication on the front page, at a size and location to be agreed with IPSO in advance, was an appropriate and proportionate remedy to the breach of Clause 12 (i).
“This would direct readers to the full adjudication, whilst not taking up disproportionate space on the front page which the Committee acknowledged is valuable editorially.”
IPSO also said a link to the online version of the adjudication should appear in the top third of The Sun’s homepage for at least 24 hours.
In a statement, rival press regulator Impress said IPSO’s decision was “a welcome one, but one that has come far too late”.
It said: “Complaints made regarding serious cases, centred on discrimination and abuse, must be investigated robustly and efficiently to ensure any negative impact on the public is limited.” Impress strengthened its own standards on discrimination of groups in a change to its Standards Code earlier this year.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog