First Thoughts: How Suzanne Moore split the Guardian

Free speech and the culture wars.

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It used to be only the right that tried to censor things. You weren’t supposed to disrespect the monarchy, blaspheme against the Christian God, encourage homosexuality or use rude words on television. Now the left wants to censor anybody who questions liberal opinion – or uses the wrong terminology – on race, religion or sexuality. Since I instinctively agree with attempts to support groups that have long suffered prejudice, social exclusion, violence and disadvantage, I, like many others on the left, hesitated to criticise those who may be overzealous in such support. Now, I fear, too many of us have been silent for too long.

Suzanne Moore, one of the most talented journalists of her generation and a feminist pioneer, has resigned from the Guardian. Some months ago, she wrote a column defending an Oxford professor who was disinvited from a commemorative women’s liberation event because she had previously addressed a group that was deemed “transphobic”. Moore went on to explain her own opinion that, while gender is a “social construct” – girls don’t have to be feminine in a conventional way nor boys masculine – sex isn’t. “Female is a biological classification that applies to all living species… Even if you are a frog.” This provoked a protest letter, signed by 338 Guardian employees, which claimed the paper’s “transphobic content… interfered” with their work.

Agile scrum master?

When I first read the letter, I was not so much outraged as gobsmacked. Who knew the Guardian had 338 employees including not just well-known columnists such as Owen Jones, but also “client-side developers”, “customer optimisers”, a “West Coast climate reporter” and, most mysteriously, an “agile scrum master”? How, scattered across the UK, the US and Australia, could they all agree on what constituted “transphobic content”? I used to skip all articles on this subject. I took no view on JK Rowling, who is also accused of transphobia. I was neither transphobic nor pro-trans. I was just not very interested.

But Moore, a former NS columnist, is one of the most precious left-wing voices in the British press. She is funny, unpredictable, passionate, provocative, fearless, sometimes exasperating. Occasionally, she’s plain wrong, as she may be on trans issues. But that’s not the point: if she feels she cannot freely express her opinions in Britain’s leading liberal daily, something has gone badly awry.

In Moore’s defence

Moore received death and rape threats on social media, but was not censored or “cancelled”. She believes senior Guardian executives didn’t stand up for her against protesters who were trying to bully her into silence. No public statement was made. Between 30 and 40 colleagues – several of them columnists – signed a counter-protest in her support, but didn’t canvass widely for signatures or seek publicity because, I am told, they feared inflaming the situation. Some now regret their reticence.

The Guardian has a problem. Without an online paywall, it has staked its future on maximising its audience in America, where big money is available from readers’ donations and advertising revenue. It competes with the New York Times for affluent, young liberal readers on both US coasts. The US is an increasingly divided society, supposedly dedicated to free speech, but, as witch-hunts of communist sympathisers in the 1950s showed, willing to hound those of different political persuasions out of their careers. The Guardian, perhaps unwittingly, has allowed itself to be sucked into America’s toxic culture wars.

Comment is free…

You will not find much diversity of opinion in the Mail, Sun or Telegraph. They pursue their side of the culture wars relentlessly and hysterically, often through personal vendettas. But the liberal left is supposed to be better than that. The Guardian should be a haven of free opinion, not the Mail’s mirror image. That includes the freedom (within limits, but wide ones) to express opinions that you or I may think illiberal. And those who exercise that freedom should be able to count on our unequivocal support.

This column appears in the latest issue of the print magazine of the New Statesman.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 27 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump

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