Free Speech

The Co-op needs to explain itself

Debate generates understanding. We’re going to need plenty of that if we’re to progress transgender rights without compromising the rights of women and the safeguarding of children, or indeed the fabric of our society.

Even a hermit in total and complete lockdown will have been aware of the bullying suffered by J.K. Rowling this summer when she had the audacity to stand up for women’s rights. Thankfully she stood firm – sadly, the same cannot be said for the Co-op, who this week wobbled in an apparent fit of alarming cowardice. 

The story started last Saturday when Stop Funding Hate, a bunch of self-righteous zealots attempted to shame the Co-op for advertising in The Spectator, a magazine they described as ‘notorious for transphobia’. Of course, no evidence was supplied to back up this scurrilous claim. But we saw the sorry saga play out on Twitter – where the discourse was more reminiscent of the school playgrounds of my childhood. 

What is bizarre is to see grown-up companies playing these games. The Co-op was summoned to the Twitter inquisition when a seemingly anonymous account ‘Lisa Fajita’ played the trans card. 

The Co-op was quickly suckered. On Monday, ‘Alice’ from their social media team announced an investigation into how this advert came to be placed in The Spectator. By Wednesday they blamed their advertising agency and declared that ‘We are taking up the issue with them with a view to them not using this publication again in the future’. 

So the Co-op, one of Britain’s oldest food retailers was to break with Britain’s oldest magazine because of something someone said on Twitter. Perhaps the Co-op expected The Spectator to change its behaviour, narrow its parameters of debate, perhaps to stop giving space to trans writers like me. In many publications, editors can come under pressure from commercial teams to stop commissioning writers who may upset advertisers. But at The Spectator, the commercial side is overseen by Andrew Neil who takes a rather different approach. Rather than criticise the editor for publishing me, he instead said he would place a lifetime ban on the Co-op from advertising with the magazine.

It seems this was not quite the response they expected. Later on Friday, the Co-op announced that it had all been some dreadful mistake and restated their commitment to editorial freedom. So that’s all right then? No. The defamatory claims have still not been withdrawn. Although no evidence was cited, The Spectator was deemed to be transphobic because it ‘prints articles about trans minorities’. 

It is ironic that the first piece cited in that list was written by me, a transgender writer. That was not so much an article about trans minorities, but by a trans minority. 

I originally entered this debate because I feared that my credibility as a transgender person living and working in society – I am a teacher – was being put at risk by campaigners with an egregious sense of entitlement, but with little empathy for women or concern for the safeguarding of children. Sadly, I fear that I may have been right. 

Certainly, the disdain for women and children is palpable. Here – in The Spectator – those issues are being covered. Only last week, Suzanne Moore unpicked the misogyny that uses trans people as a shield. Meanwhile, James Kirkup was discussing the unfolding scandal surrounding the treatment of transgender-identified children over a year ago. But nowhere have transgender people been demonised or excluded. 

Yet this is not only a debate about trans people. It is a debate that includes trans people. The Spectator can hardly be described as transphobic when it puts inclusion into practice and commissions work from a transgender writer. But this is not about me. It is about society. The ideology that has risen to prominence in the transgender debate – that men and women are defined not by sex but by gender identity – affects everyone because it challenges the very foundations of human society. It is a debate we desperately need to have, and not in the wild west of social media. The Co-op needs to do better than allude to some careless mistake: it needs to make a statement of explanation and apology. The Co-op needs to explain the nature of the trap it fell into, to help other corporates who may make the same mistake. 

When Virgin Rail fell for the Stop Funding Hate trap (its junior officials were lured into cancelling the Daily Mail over articles on trans issues) Richard Branson did not just reverse the decision. He had the courage to explain in public where his company had gone wrong: he made a full statement and apologised. ‘We must not ever be seen to be censoring what our customers read and influencing their freedom of choice,’ he said. 

The Co-op has taken the cowardly route, deleting the offending Tweet and then responding with a vague retraction on other people’s tweets. That won’t do. The record needs to be put straight. Doing so would help trans writers like me have our voices heard. And it would make it less likely that editors who publish our writing would fear retribution from the mob. But – perhaps more significantly – Stop Funding Hate should define what they mean by hate: because debate is not hate. Debate generates understanding. We’re going to need plenty of that if we’re to progress transgender rights without compromising the rights of women and the safeguarding of children, or indeed the fabric of our society.

Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 5 September 2020: The Co-op needs to explain itself.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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