The reaction to Jeremy Clarkson’s Sun column about Meghan Markle has been so over-the-top, it’s actually becoming quite funny. The most ridiculous I’ve seen so far was that of Chris Packham, presenter of Springwatch and a long-standing opponent of Clarkson’s on everything from driven shooting to farming. He tweeted: “It’s hate crime, pure and simple. If there were any sort of justice there would be laws that would jail him. And shut down the publisher. Is this the country we want to live in? Is this what we should tolerate? We must ask ourselves – where is this leading? Nowhere good.”
Does Packham really believe that Britain would be a better place if newspaper columnists could be imprisoned (and their newspapers shut down) for saying something offensive? Maybe he does.
I can’t link to the column in question because Clarkson has asked the Sun to take it down (which I think is a mistake). But it hardly matters because it’s been reproduced everywhere, particularly by those who claim to believe the words Clarkson used are likely to inspire violence against women and girls. (If they’re really so dangerous, why keep repeating them?) Here’s the offending passage:
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.
This is an obvious reference to the scene in Game of Thrones in which Cersei is forced to do a ‘walk of atonement’ by the High Sparrow, but that was ignored by all Clarkson’s critics who reacted as if he had dredged up with this peculiar form of ritual humiliation from deep in his ‘misogynistic’ psyche. Apart from David Baddiel, who got the reference but condemned Clarkson anyway on the grounds that the original scene was itself a “violent misogynistic fantasy”.
The number of people who’ve interpreted Clarkson’s words, not as an attack on Meghan, but as an expression of misogyny, i.e. his deep-seated hatred of women in general and not just one woman, is extraordinary. When a female columnist fantasises about violence being inflicted on a man – Caitlin Moran once tweeted she hoped Germaine Greer would cut me in half with a sword – no one accuses them of misandry. But here’s the ex-Labour spin doctor Ayesha Hazarika giving her view on Clarkson’s column: “Many of us this week are reflecting on how misogyny has infected society and why violence against women is at such a frightening level.” That was also the view of Nicola Sturgeon, who described the column as “deeply misogynistic” – this was after a laughable bit of throat clearing in which the First Minister said she was a “passionate believer in free speech”! (This is the same woman whose government passed the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act last year.)
And it seems many members of the public shared this reaction. According to the Guardian, the Independent Press Standards Regulator has received a record number of complaints about the column – 17,500 so far, which is more than than the combined total it received in 2021.
Even Clarkson’s own daughter Emily condemned him, issuing the following statement on her Instagram account:
My views are and have always been clear when it comes to misogyny, bullying and the treatment of women by the media.
I want to make it very clear that I stand against everything that my dad wrote about Meghan Markle and I remain standing in support of those that are targeted with online hatred.
That has the whiff of Mao’s China about it, but it didn’t stop numerous commentators praising her. Carol Vorderman, for instance, described Emily’s denunciation of her father as “wonderful” and went on to condemn Clarkson for writing such a vile thing about “any woman”. Vorderman said in a follow-up tweet that she’d received “lots of abuse” about her condemnation of Clarkson, but didn’t mind because witnessing his demise – and seeing the ejaculations of anyone foolish enough to defend him – was “like watching the last death throes of the dinosaur age”. (Isn’t that a bit ageist?)
Incidentally, Vorderman quote-tweeted a letter to the Chief Executive of ITV signed by 60 MPs, including some Conservatives, urging her to sack him as presenter of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? They, too, didn’t get the Game of Thrones reference – or pretended not to so they could work themselves up into even more of a lather. “Expressing a scatological, misogynistic fantasy that Meghan Markle might be assaulted with faeces is an insight into a disturbed mind, openly expressing violent hate speech,” wrote the letter’s author, SNP MP John Nicholson. He claimed he had “consistently defended freedom of the press” – oh really? – but Clarkson had “crossed a line”.
The pile-on against the “old fart” is ironic, given that the people leading the charge claim to be concerned about the psychological trauma his words have caused Meghan. What about the psychological impact on Clarkson of being the latest victim of two minutes hate? It’s almost as if his critics are demanding that he should be stripped naked and paraded through the streets of every town in Britain while he’s pelted with excrement for daring to suggest that someone should be stripped naked and… etc., etc.
Needless to say, far from being traumatised, Harry and Meghan will be rubbing their hands with glee over this row, not least because it’s shifted public opinion back in their favour after the poor reception given to their Neflix ‘documentary’. Here, at last, is the ‘evidence’ they’ve been desperately searching for that the racist British tabloids turned on Meghan because, to quote John Nicholson’s letter, she’s “the only person of colour in the Royal Family”.
How has Clarkson responded to all this performative outrage and opportunistic virtue-signalling? Alas, he has issued (sort of) an apology:
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.
Oh, Jeremy. You should have reached out to the Free Speech Union, where we would have told you that apologising rarely succeeds in drawing a line under attempts to cancel you. On the contrary, it emboldens the mob who sense weakness and move in for the kill. When I stepped down from the Office for Students and apologised for various sophomoric remarks I’d made on Twitter in 2018, the Twitchfork mob immediately tried to get me fired from all my other jobs and I ended up losing five positions in total. And so it has proved to be in Clarkson’s case, with campaigns launched now to have him fired by Amazon, where he presents Grand Tour, as well as Clarkson’s Farm.
That issuing an apology was a mistake is also the view of Ross Clark, who has written an excellent piece for the Telegraph about L’Affaire Clarkson. It begins:
Jeremy Clarkson has never been the most subtle of writers, but his latest column has managed to exceed even his own outrage-expectations. In my view, if you want to call out the former royal couple for their excruciating and hypocritical behaviour, it pays to be everything they are not: reasonable, reserved and respectful. Fantasising about Meghan being paraded through the streets having lumps of excrement thrown at her is the very sort of thing which fuels the couple’s grievance machine, which allows them to say: see what we mean about racist Britain hating Meghan?
In truth, Netflix producers failed so miserably to demonstrate that Harry and Meghan were victims of an orchestrated hate campaign by the British tabloids that they were reduced to flashing up headlines from American publications. But Clarkson’s column will certainly be taking pride of place in the couple’s next film.
Today, however, that is not the main issue – for the debate has extended into one of free speech and Clarkson’s right to cause offence. The answer is easy: of course he has that right. And having written what he did, Clarkson made an error by appearing to apologise. That is exactly what Harry and Meghan and their supporters want: for the British press, and potentially its regulators, to be so fearful of causing offence that they grovel before them.
Clarkson should have followed one of two examples. The first, like the best comedians, is to unashamedly defend his right to write what he did. The second would be to maintain a dignified silence: say nothing, or, at the very most insist that “interpretations of my column may vary”.
It isn’t just Harry and Meghan whose interests Jeremy Clarkson has helped serve by means of his apology: it is the entire liberal-Left establishment and its demented campaign against what it calls the “Right-wing press”. Is there anything more ridiculous than watching Sir Philip Pullman, for instance, mounting his high horse over Clarkson’s column? This is a man who tweeted, following the Brexit vote, “When I hear the name Boris Johnson for some reason the words ‘rope’ and ‘nearest lamp post’ come to mind as well.”
Were the liberal-Left to apply consistent standards, it would have demanded that Sir Philip’s books be removed from bookshop and library shelves, and films based on his books to be banned from television. But of course, different rules apply to “enlightened” liberal commentators, who are allowed to employ violent imagery in their arguments and brush aside complaints that they didn’t mean it literally (neither, funny enough, did Clarkson when he called for Meghan to be paraded naked through the streets).
Worth reading in full.
What’s my view of Clarkson’s column? Well, I wouldn’t have written those words myself, not least because – to paraphrase Clark – I wouldn’t have wanted to give “the entire liberal-Left establishment” an excuse to launch yet another attack on the “Right-wing press” or lend any credibility to Meghan’s ludicrous attempts to smear the British tabloids as racist. I think I also would have recognised that it’s a little tone deaf to confess to fantasising about inflicting a Game of Thrones-style ‘walk of shame’ on a prominent female public figure, given the current campaign to criminalise ‘misogyny’. Such a law would pose a major threat to free speech because, among other things, it would almost certainly make it a criminal offence to say something ‘hateful’ against transwomen as well as women, which, as we know, includes saying you don’t think transwomen are women. I’m not sure all the feminist commentators citing L’Affair Clarkson as a reason we need a law against misogyny have thought that one through.
Should it be against the law to write what Clarkson wrote? Absolutely not. Should he lose his gigs on ITV and Amazon? Of course not. Should he be sacked by the Sun? No. I’ve got nothing against people condemning Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere – they’re as entitled to exercise their free speech as he is. But trying to get someone fired for saying something you find offensive – or, more accurately, pretend to find offensive – goes beyond healthy debate in the public square and strays into cancel culture. That’s crossing a line, John Nicholson.
Whenever anyone says they support free speech but draw the line at hate speech, the six million dollar question is: Who gets to decide what hate speech is? In today’s political climate, accusing the Royal Family of being a racist institution isn’t hate speech – even though it’s clearly intended to stir up hatred against King Charles et al – but saying you would like to strip the accuser naked, parade her through the streets of every town in Britain… etc., etc. is the secular equivalent of blasphemy. Why? How did that become the rule? Because Chris Packham, Ayesha Hazarika and Carol Vorderman say so? And if it’s just whoever shouts the loudest, or whoever’s opinions align with the prevailing orthodoxy on Twitter, how will those purse-lipped puritans defend themselves when the fashion changes and their equivalents in 25 years’ time regard their speech as hateful?
As Ira Glasser, the ex-head of the ACLU said:
Speech restrictions are like poison gas. You see a bad speaker out there. And you don’t want to listen to him or her anymore. So you get this poison gas and say, “I’m going to spray him with it.” And then the wind shifts. And pretty soon the gas blows back on you.