Emily Carver is a broadcaster and commentator.
Do we really want our politicians dictating what newspapers can and cannot publish? The natural instinct of most freedom-minded people would be “absolutely not, we don’t live in a communist state”.
Yet, following the backlash against Jeremy Clarkson’s satirical (if rather offensive and vulgar) column about Meghan Markle, 65 MPs have signed a letter, not only condemning the Sun for publishing the article but making a number of draconian demands on its editor.
Predictably, the letter written by Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, was immediately posted on social media, garnering plenty of congratulatory likes and retweets, and reigniting the Twitter fire that was by then beginning to dwindle.
So, what is it they are actually trying to achieve? The letter demands the Sun take “action” against Clarkson. Nokes does not specify what kind of action, though one can assume she wants him to lose his column (at the very least). Or perhaps his crude and ill-judged use of satire constitutes one of those “non-crime hate incidents” we often hear about.
The letter also demands the newspaper issue an “unreserved apology” to the Duchess. It may be that the Sun ends up following Clarkson and apologising.
But Nokes’ view on the matter should hold absolutely no sway. I don’t remember any of the MP signatories writing to Jo Brand or her employer when she suggested throwing battery acid at Nigel Farage.
The letter goes on to ask that “definitive action” be taken “to ensure no article like this is ever published again”.
But again, Nokes fails to outline what she means by this. The idea that a politician should tell a newspaper what is and isn’t acceptable to be published – when within the law – is hard to stomach, particularly when said article has already been retracted due to public pressure.
The stated justification for Nokes’ intervention is that the column “directly contribute[s]” to an “unacceptable climate of hatred and violence” against a backdrop of surging violence against women and girls, and that the Sun should not to be promoting Clarkson as a male role model.
(We await Nokes’ evidence that abusers and rapists are taking inspiration from the ramblings of Clarkson about a Duchess living halfway across the world.)
Of course, most people’s first response to this whole affair would be to ask whether our politicians don’t have more pressing matters to deal with, not least the cost-of-living crisis, paralysing strike action, or even the very many real crimes against women. It’s worth remembering here that for many of us, Nokes is no ally, not least when it comes to protecting women’s sex-based rights.
Then there’s the idea that it’s somehow beyond the average Sun reader to realise that what Clarkson wrote was satire, a parody on a particularly grotesque scene from the Game of Thrones. The fact it was so completely over the top was a surer sign than any that he did not actually, literally mean what he was writing.
So, while his piece wasn’t to many of our tastes and, ironically, will provide more material for the Duke and Duchess’s next attack on the British and its press, I don’t imagine many people believe for one minute Clarkson actually wishes to throw excrement at Markle, nor do I believe he meant to incite any such behaviour.
To some, this intervention by Nokes may seem like a harmless opportunity to show solidarity with women victimised by men. And I, too, am surprised this article made it through the editing process.
But Nokes and the co-signatories of this letter would do well to re-familiarise themselves with the importance of a free press, and whilst they’re at it, Britain’s long history of satirical, and often downright offensive, literature and comedy.
Otherwise, she may as well go the whole hog and sign up to far-left campaign group Stop Funding Hate, who are, naturally, demanding businesses pull their advertising with the newspaper in response to the column.
What’s most worrying is what the whole affair exposes about our politicians’ relationship with free speech, including the number of MPs who apparently believe words can be akin to actual, physical violence.
This illiberal belief has already had a profound impact on the law, empowering regulators to censor speech, which is set to be expanded further into private speech when the Online Safety Bill finally receives royal assent.
It’s likely that the furore over Clarkson’s column, and the subsequent intervention from Nokes et al, will embolden those who wish to censor what they don’t like to see or read.
By way of antidote, those people and politicians who believe that opinions published in the press should not be subject to the whims and tastes of politicians should make their voices heard – even they happen to take the view that the Sun is a trashy tabloid giving nasty misogynists a platform.