At 10 p.m. on Friday night, the BBC sent out a ‘breaking news’ notification informing millions that a joke made by Jeremy Clarkson about Meghan Markle has been deemed sexist by Ipso, the press regulator. That such attention was given to a few sentences published on p17 in a months-old article is odd, but the BBC had cottoned on to an important point: the battle for press freedom had just suffered a major setback. Hacked Off, an outfit campaigning for state regulation of the press, reacted with typical illiteracy, announcing: ‘Ipso finally upholed [sic] sexism complaint’ marking ‘the first time in Ipso’s history that it upheld a complaint about sexism’. It is right to say that a bridge has been crossed, a defence of press freedom trampled upon. The activists have finally found a way through.
By upholding the Clarkson complaint, Ipso has torn up the previous protection expressed in its Editors’ Code: that opinion is not regulated. You’re not supposed to be able to complain on someone else’s behalf unless you have found a factual error: this a clause intended to stop Ipso being manipulated by activist groups. ‘Complaints can only be taken forward from the party directly affected’, ran the old rules. Had Meghan complained? If not, nothing to investigate. Ipso checks accuracy and protects individuals from press misbehaviour – but it was not set up as a thought police. It doesn’t judge taste.