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1 November 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:50am

No, the Waitrose vegan row isn’t about free speech

Not everything has to be part of a culture war. 

By Stephen Bush

Why did the sackings of James Gunn, the Hollywood director, and Roseanne Barr, the comedian turned television producer, trouble me, yet I am relaxed the resignation of William Sitwell, the former editor of Waitrose Food, after a rude email he sent to a freelancer was published by BuzzFeed?

Gunn and Barr were both dismissed from their roles as writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and writer and producer of Roseanne by Disney and ABC respectively for offensive tweets: in the case of Gunn, these tweets were years old, while in the case of Barr, they were contemporary. In both cases, however, they did not relate to the content of their programme and crucially they were on Twitter – not on air. In neither case had the tweets hurt the bottom line of either business.

Sitwell’s resignation is in an entirely different category. He responded to a sensible and well-articulated pitch about a new series focussing on vegan eating (a market that Waitrose is keen to capitalise on, as one-eighth of the United Kingdom is now vegetarian or vegan, and among the upper-middle-class consumers that Waitrose targets the proportion is still higher) by asking instead for a series about “killing vegans, one by one”, “exposing their hypocrisy” and force-feeding them steak and red wine.

Sitwell made a series of blunders, all of which meant that Waitrose was perfectly within its rights to ask for his removal. Firstly, and most obviously, he turned down an article series targeting a group of consumers that his employer is trying to win over by insulting said group of consumers. What seems to have escaped the attention of Sitwell’s defenders is that the purpose of Waitrose Food magazine is not to make a hard-hitting magazine in which editors shoot from the hip and take no prisoners with their opinions and rough humour; but to encourage people to shop at Waitrose. Waitrose is launching a new vegan range – why should the company want an editor whose reaction to a series about vegan eating is to turn it down, let alone to turn it down in the manner he did, which you can very fairly read as a point-blank opposition to any vegan content at all? (And given his wider criticisms of vegan cooking, it is again, not unreasonable for Waitrose to wonder if there aren’t insurmountable creative obstacles in place here.)

Secondly, he dragged Waitrose into an unwinnable culture war argument: exactly the position where a supermarket targeting upper-middle-class consumers does not want to be. Sitwell’s email put Waitrose in a terrible position: he leaves and they will be criticised by one half of their customer base, he stays and they will be criticised by the other, while also losing at least some of the customers they want to attract.

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Last of all, he sent an unprofessional email to an outside contractor, risking the exact situation that then played out. This isn’t Barr or Gunn; this is someone behaving in an unprofessional way that directly runs over the interests of the business they were handsomely remunerated to work for. Not everything has to be stretched to fit an arid culture war. Sometimes a courgette is just a courgette.