John McLellan: '˜Killing vegans' row shows consequences of free speech

People in responsible positions '“ like William Sitwell, who recently resigned as editor of Waitrose Food magazine after joking about 'killing vegans, one by one' '“ cannot ignore the fact they have responsibilities, writes John McLellan.
William Sitwells joke about killing vegans was not the smartest moveWilliam Sitwells joke about killing vegans was not the smartest move
William Sitwells joke about killing vegans was not the smartest move

November is awards season and one of the most popular masters of ceremonies is broadcaster, radio DJ and panto star Grant Stott. His cheery bonhomie and Hibs-flavoured banter always goes down well, and one of his openers usually gets a laugh: “Could any vegetarians please raise your hands ... if you’ve got the strength.”

Ho-ho. But if this gag is still in his repertoire, for how much longer? The furore surrounding the now ex-Waitrose Food magazine editor William Sitwell and his email in which he told a freelance journalist he would like to run a feature about “killing vegans, one by one”, has been characterised as “food racism”, opening up another debate about the onward march of political correctness and the resulting erosion of freedom of expression.

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For the editor of a supermarket food magazine to tell a freelance journalist he would like to run a feature about “killing vegans, one by one” was not the smartest move when the vegetarian ultras are an important part of Waitrose’s clientele in a highly competitive business. But is it an affront to Press freedom?

Mr Sitwell could not have bargained for the journalist to whom the email was sent taking such offence as to reveal the contents of what he obviously thought was an amusing but private comment and he resigned before he was fired. It just goes to show that if email is rubbish for humour and irony it’s even worse for putting in writing what you would probably not say in public to someone who is not your friend.

Just such a misjudgement cost Scotsman columnist Brian Monteith his political career when at the end of an email to the then editor of Scotland on Sunday he added a one-line PS suggesting that his boss, the late Scottish Conservative leader David McLetchie, should resign and it was duly turned into a story.

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Waitrose Food magazine editor quits after '˜killing vegans' jibe

Amongst those leaping to Mr Sitwell’s defence was The Times’ humourist and restaurant critic Giles Coren, saying that the email should not end his career because “vegans are not a race or a gender or a sexual orientation or a differently abled group. They just choose to eat plants”.

Whether or not he has been hounded out by politically correct social media trolling or not, the simple truth is that people in responsible positions cannot ignore the impact their words and deeds might have on those to whom they have responsibility. Waitrose doesn’t publish a magazine to contribute to the canons of British journalism or literature, but to flog more kumquats and kiwi fruit, so in this instance editorial integrity and freedom of expression don’t trump the interests of the publisher.

If I go to the Morningside Waitrose and, while examining the fennel bulbs and echalion shallots, feel the need for independent thought which challenges political correctness, I’ll buy a Spectator and read Rod Liddle, not pick up the latest edition of Waitrose Food.

But should Mr Sitwell also be barred from ever appearing again on the BBC’s Masterchef, where as one of the critics he famously attacked the use of square plates? Blatant prejudice against square plate-makers aside, such shows thrive on magnified opinion and controversy and what was clearly a jocular remark rather than the precursor to mass extermination should not preclude his future participation.

Similarly, comedian Susan Calman is perfectly at liberty to express her dislike of the Prime Minister because she owes nothing to anyone and presumably won’t be too upset if she is never asked to address the South Edinburgh Conservatives lunch club. But as the BBC’s complaints unit has recognised, even The News Quiz on Radio 4, on which Ms Calman called Mrs May a coward, has an obligation under the BBC Charter to be politically unbiased. Whether the remark was worth complaining about is a moot point, with the danger that it makes Conservative supporters look thin-skinned, especially as satirising the Prime Minster of the day has been part of public discourse in this country as long as there have been Prime Ministers.

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Taking that to a local level, there was a view amongst some Edinburgh councillors, notably Labour’s Gordon Munro, that my Conservative colleagues were being overly sensitive in complaining about a slogan “Tory Free” appearing in a word cloud created by the 2050 Edinburgh City Vision website run by Marketing Edinburgh.

Contributions for the cloud came from members of the public, but all suggestions were supposed to be vetted and it appears that a member of staff approved “Tory Free” as acceptable for what is supposed to be a non-political campaign. It was quickly removed after a complaint; both the poster and the moderator are perfectly entitled to hold the view that Tories should be turfed out of Edinburgh, but Marketing Edinburgh not so much.

In the Waitrose situation, imagine if the magazine actually published a jokey attack on vegans? I’d hazard a guess there are fewer vegans in Edinburgh than the 61,000 people who voted Conservative at the last General Election, and it wouldn’t have been so easy to dismiss had the “Tory Free” message appeared in a hard copy rather than just the website. The intention, however, was the same.

So should that Marketing Edinburgh staffer do a William Sitwell and resign? Not at all, but like Waitrose and the BBC this week I’d expect his or her boss to point out that working for a non-political organisation whose main aim is to attract people to Edinburgh no matter their beliefs comes with responsibilities.