Editing a newspaper is the best job in the world. I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years and there’s not been a week when I haven’t found the whole process thrilling.
But I’m going to let you into secret. Part of the thrill is annoying people. Let me put it this way: if you don’t enjoy the idea of people reading your paper and spluttering with indignation, you’re in the wrong job. A newspaper that doesn’t challenge its readers — that simply reflects their views — is not only going to be soporific. It’s also betraying the very idea of a free press.
In which context, let me introduce you to Alistair Smith, the editor of The Stage.
On Friday and Monday, Mr Smith published two pieces from freelance writers on either side of a debate about the Old Vic theatre’s loos. Within minutes of the pieces appearing on The Stage’s site, they were removed. When you find out why, you learn much about the state of public debate and modern issues of free speech.
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As it happens, a year or so ago I was sitting in the stalls of the Old Vic with my wife. Sitting next to her was Sir Tom Stoppard. After the interval, my wife made it back to her seat with just seconds to spare. Sir Tom turned to her, looked at her knowingly, and said words to the effect of: “Aren’t the women’s toilets here a disgrace?” So I was aware before this week’s controversy that there was an issue.
Last week, the theatre announced that it had dealt with the problem. Its solution, however, was to remove the male and female signs and replace them with gender-neutral cubicles and separate urinals. It will now be up to individuals which they use. After a crowd-funded refurbishment, there are now 44 lavatories; previously there were 22. Of the 44, 26 are sit-down loos and 18 urinals.
The Old Vic doubtless considers it has taken a thoughtful step in the battle against discrimination against trans and non-binary people. In reality, it has made things worse for women. Biological women cannot — do I really need to point this out? — use a urinal. But biological men can use a cubicle. So there are only 26 toilets for biological women — and they need to mingle alongside the men (let me be delicate here) preparing to use the urinals.
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But the issue I bring to your attention isn’t the rights and wrongs of the Old Vic’s new toilet policy. It is how The Stage has chosen to cover it.
The Stage commissioned one piece arguing in favour of the Old Vic’s move and another, by the writer Sarah Ditum, opposing it. Her article was headlined: “A theatre with inadequate women’s toilets is a theatre that doesn’t care about women.”
You can read the piece on her website, because it is no longer on The Stage’s. Mr Smith removed both articles, according to a statement by the newspaper, because it had received “strong responses” from readers that in posting two pieces putting different views the paper had “only polarised the debate further”. But Ditum’s is a mild and rational piece, with not a word of criticism, stated or implied, of trans and non-binary toilet users. It is about the needs of biological women.
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It is difficult to overstate the spinelessness of Mr Smith’s decision. This was not a debate about the rights and wrongs of, for example, incest or compulsory euthanasia at the age of 60, where one side of the argument is, one might say, controversial. It was a piece about lavatories for women.
In reality, the issue is not even about those facilities. It is about the visceral hatred and abuse that pours forth from some of the more vocal trans activists when anyone dares to question whether there is a difference between sex and gender, the former being biological and the latter, perhaps, a social and cultural construct. And how those in positions of influence — such as editors — react to that noise.
When Ms Ditum’s piece appeared on The Stage, it was met with the usual abuse that any discussion of these always receives (this piece will, too). She was attacked as “anti-trans” and “transphobic”.
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According to the paper: “We have received strong responses from our readers against both articles. We recognise this was an error on our part and would like to apologise. As a result, we have decided to remove both articles from the website.”
Dear God. What is the point of a newspaper if not to prompt strong responses? An editor afraid to publish an article that some people disagree with is an editor who, surely, should be questioning what he or she is doing in the job.
But cowardice is the least of the problems. Because if editors, who decide what does and does not go into a publication, make that decision on the basis of who shouts the loudest, we really are in trouble.
And as Ms Ditum has said of what happened to her piece: “The Stage pulled it (and the companion piece) in response to complaints about me, without forewarning me, thereby giving credence to false accusations against me — but more importantly, denying coverage to a fundamental matter of women’s access to public space. The editor has told me he had no issue with any part of my piece and apologised, but this in no way compensates for the gross editorial cowardice on display.”
The Stage and its editor have now, entirely as a result of their own behaviour, become a symbol of the wider problem of how modern mores dictate that certain arguments may not be made, certain groups may not be offended, and certain issues not raised. And we all worse off for it.