The Queen versus The Sun sees press regular IPSO cast as piggy in the middle and facing its biggest test so far, without a doubt it's the best media show in town and all set to run and run.
There was no sign of any forelock-touching as Sun editor Tony Gallagher came out fighting in defence of the sensational front page 'scoop' with its explosive headline, ‘Queen Backs Brexit’. On the surface at least, Buckingham Palace's decision to lodge its first formal complaint with new press regulator, IPSO, seemed to hold no terrors for the editor.
In fact, Gallagher seized the opportunity to take to the airwaves of the BBC's Today programme (in marked contrast to several more reticent previous Sun editors) to confront the Queen's challenge and stand by political editor Tom Newton Dunn's story declaring: “We knew much more than we published” and arguing the public has a right to know Her Majesty's opinion on the EU and whether the monarch likes it or not.
“We had multiple sources – two sources to be precise – come to us with information about the Queen and her views on the EU and we would have been derelict in our duty if we didn't put them in the paper. It's as simple as that,” a bullish Gallagher told Today.
Yes, there was a more awkward moment when the editor was challenged over whether what the Queen (allegedly) told then deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in a ‘heated exchange’ at a Privy Council lunch back in April 2011 justified such a headline in March 2016 but Gallagher suggested that merely amounted to ‘semantics’. And at the risk of making a semantic point of my own, an EU referendum was far from a firm commitment at the time and the term ‘Brexit’ was very much still a twinkle in the eye of Bill Cash and the rest of the Tory Party’s Eurosceptic wing.
For what it's worth, I suspect – despite the Palace's protests and Nick Clegg's qualified denials – that the Queen may well have made a critical comment about the EU at that Windsor Castle lunch. I've met the Queen briefly a couple of times, although I can't pretend to have discussed politics with her, by all accounts I gather that she can ask pointed questions and toss in observations at Privy Council gatherings in the belief that these are strictly private conversations.
That said, privy counsellors of my acquaintance insist the monarch – a jealous guardian of her 63 years of political neutrality – would never go as far as advocating who she'd want to win a general election or a referendum such as the EU vote Britain will take on June 23.
I also suspect that The Sun – a newspaper that relishes being in the spotlight and setting the agenda – is enjoying the furore it's triggered rather more than it fears the outcome (whichever way it goes) of IPSO's ultimate verdict and the Palace's current wrath.
If you doubt that, you only have to look at the paper's defiant and robust follow-up today, with the classic cheeky Sun headline, ‘Throne a wobbly' over a picture of a suitably grim-faced Her Maj. Plus, rolling out its heavyweight political guru Trevor Kavanagh – ironically a recent recruit to the IPSO board and a trusted confidant of Rupert Murdoch – to defend the paper's coverage with the headline, ‘The Queen's only human and, like all of us, has opinions’.
Inevitably as the right Royal rumpus escalates, frenzied media speculation centres on who was the Sun's key source. Unsurprisingly suspicion falls on justice secretary Michael Gove if only by virtue of the fact that he was at that lunch, is now a leading light in the Brexit campaign, and is a former Times leader writer close to Rupert Murdoch himself.
Last weekend, Gove was the most prominent political figure at the media mogul's wedding to Jerry Hall and, according, to a front page report in the Daily Telegraph, had a private dinner with Murdoch a couple of days earlier. All of which begs the intriguing question whether Murdoch himself sanctioned The Sun's explosive revelations. So far that remains a mystery as the press baron has taken a vow of Twitter silence whilst off on honeymoon.
In another twist, Labour somewhat predictably and opportunistically weighed in with MP Wes Streeting calling on cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood – regularly reviled as ‘Sir Cover-Up’ by the Daily Mail – to launch an urgent investigation into who leaked the Privy Council lunch story. That seems likely to fall on deaf ears, with Chris Grayling, the Eurosceptic leader of the commons, condemning the ‘leak’ but insisting that IPSO was the appropriate investigating channel.
So, unless David Cameron is furious enough to order Sir Jeremy into action, Grayling's view is likely to prevail. Not least because – despite their deep disagreement over the EU in/out issue – numero uno suspect Michael Gove remains one of the prime minister's closest personal friends.
Supporters and critics of IPSO will be closely monitoring the regulator's handling of the biggest test to confront chairman Sir Alan Moses and his team so far. Can The Sun back up its claim? Unless its sources voluntarily come forward, then the paper will be honour bound to protect their anonymity.
The Palace may well summon other attendees from the Windsor Castle gathering five years ago to support its complaint and if the Palace go ahead with asking other attendees for their accounts of the Windsor Castle lunch, it raises the tantalising prospect of Michael Gove being asked for his version. Presumably plus the question: Were you the Sun's royal 'mole', minister?
Crucially the Queen's complaint to IPSO is specific and relates to Clause 1 of the editors' code of practice, concerning accuracy. It includes a phrase about 'headlines not supported by the text,' with the likely contention that even The Sun's disputed story was more nuanced and doesn't justify the ‘Queen backs Brexit’ screamer.
The Sun, however, will surely counter that if the monarch did say what its source(s) said she said, then it would be reasonable to argue that equated to a quasi-pro-Brexit view. If I were putting money on the outcome of the Queen versus the Sun on the playing fields of IPSO, I would have a sporting wager on the regulator ruling against the headline while broadly defending the story itself.
Either way Her Majesty's run in with The Sun still has quite a way to run.
Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror, and co-author of After Leveson.