free speech

What the Waitrose Editor's Vegan Joke Tells Us About the Absurd 'Free Speech' Debate

Why does a question of basic professional etiquette have to become a national debate about freedom of expression?

by Tom Whyman
01 November 2018, 4:54pm

William Sitwell, former editor of Waitrose magazine (keith morris news / Alamy Stock Photo)

This week in "everybody is losing their damn minds": on Wednesday, William Sitwell – up until this point, the editor of Waitrose's in-store magazine – was forced to resign after responding to a vegan freelancer by joking that he'd like to force-feed her meat, trap her like an animal and ultimately have her killed.

Food writer Selene Nelson had pitched Sitwell an idea for a regular column analogous to The Guardian's "The New Vegan", featuring "recipes as well as commentary, news, [and] collaborations with top vegan chefs", appealing to a growing audience who – for health, as well as ethical and environmental reasons – are choosing to give up meat and dairy. After Sitwell gave his wildly hostile and inappropriate response, Nelson leaked their email exchange to Buzzfeed News.

Any normal person would presumably at this point be thinking: I can see why this has happened. This is a very cut-and-dry case. The job of William Sitwell, as editor of the Waitrose in-store magazine, was to produce what is effectively a promotional tool for the supermarket he works for. The content of the Waitrose magazine should primarily be focused on food Waitrose sells, and recipes people can make with that food. It is not a forum for the personal views of William Sitwell, unless those views happen to be: "It absolutely is worth spending £10 more on this parmesan than you would on any of the alternative parmesans they sell at normal supermarkets that aren't aimed primarily at posh people, the flavour more than justifies the expense."

In replying to Nelson in the way he did, Sitwell displayed two things. Firstly, that he does not understand how to respond appropriately to freelancers, which seems fairly fundamental to his job. Writers are used to having to vie for busy editors' attention, which can sometimes feel like yelling into the void. This isn't ideal, but it's definitely preferable to being told a prospective editor is considering hunting you for sport.

Secondly – and perhaps more importantly, in terms of why this cost him his job – Sitwell displayed a complete lack of understanding of a substantial (and growing) section of his supermarket's audience (in fact, data released by Waitrose the day after Sitwell's departure indicated that one in eight Britons are now vegetarian or vegan). Anyone who doesn't eat meat, even someone (like me) who doesn't eat meat but also isn't especially dogmatic or evangelical about this choice, is used to people – usually older men – grumbling about vegetarian and vegan food being boring and/or disgusting, whining about how everyone who chooses not to just wants special treatment.

This is despite the fact that some of the most exciting food around these days is vegan – the advances in vegan junk food recently have been really quite astounding. In the face of this, anyone who remains as boorishly close-minded about veganism as Sitwell does absolutely should not be editing a food magazine.

So why is this even a story? Well – as I'm sure you're aware by now, the simple truth is that we do not live in a world where the way any normal person might perceive things really matters. What matters is how this sort of thing is perceived by the diseased intellects of the professional media and political classes, and what do they see in the Sitwell case? In short: it's the latest lefty attack on freedom of speech.

The Spectator's Peter Oborne called this Wednesday "a dark day for free expression". If you believe Sunday Times journalist Tim Shipman, Sitwell – who, just so we can all be reminded of the context, edits what is effectively an in-flight magazine, but for a supermarket – is a journalistic colossus, "one of the most talented magazine editors of his generation". His departure is a "sad moment which reflects poorly on modern society". Among Sitwell's other supporters is Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, although this one could be explained by the fact that Rees-Mogg was the best man at Sitwell's wedding.

What's going on here? Well, obviously all this chimes with a broader culture war that's being fought across the media right now – between allegedly censorious young "snowflakes", perpetually offended and unable to cope with the harsh realities of the adult world, and middle-aged bores, perpetually offended by whatever their kids are doing and unable to face up to the harsh realities of, you know, climate change and stuff, which (regardless of how effective this might eventually prove) is one of the major reasons why people are now eating less meat. But why the fuck does this, of all things, have to be a part of that? Is every old white guy getting fired a free speech issue nowadays?

It would seem so. I'm not sure what this says about the state of the culture war. One theory might be that it means the bores are winning, and now they're just trying to flex the muscles of their authority over every little thing. The alternative theory would be that they're losing, and getting desperate, and just lashing out at even the slightest stimulus. Regardless, I have a suggestion: if these people are going to treat every little incident like this as if it's some sort of major scandal, let's give them something to really get outraged about. Fire every white man with a prominent editorial or comment position at a newspaper or magazine over the age of 50. They'll be fine: they're all plenty rich, they own houses (probably multiple houses), they've got savings. The world doesn't need their shit opinions about vegans and free speech and everything else anymore. It's time for some new blood.