Pissed-off Toff

A silly email? Off to jail!

in PC Watch

The resignation of William Sitwell as editor of Waitrose’s Food magazine has been widely reported. But few have noticed the more worrying aspect of this story … namely, that a foolish email could have landed him in jail.

There’s no better fun than a good twitter storm, with all the polarisation, outrage and raw vituperation that it brings; and famously, the most recent screaming match was focused on William Sitwell, the urbane Colin Firth lookalike who has for the last twenty-odd years been the editor of Waitrose’s Food magazine.

For those who haven’t followed the story, let us recap briefly.

One fine afternoon towards the end of October, Sitwell received an email from a freelance journalist called Selene Nelson, pitching a “plant-based meal series” featuring healthy, eco-friendly vegan recipes.

“Hi Selene,” he replied just ten minutes later, with a promptness that most freelance writers can only dream of. “How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?” He followed this up with another email, thus: “I like the idea of a column called The Honest Vegan; a millennial’s diary of earnest endeavour and bacon sandwiches.” At some stage, the email correspondence between Sitwell and Selene Nelson fizzled out, leaving the latter – by her own account – feeling shocked and unhappy. She therefore contacted BuzzFeed, an on-line media forum which thrives on this sort of thing, and the story went viral, provoking a perfect twitter storm.

This was embarassing for Waitrose, because here was the editor of their own magazine mocking a group of well-heeled customers whom they had identified as a target market and whom they were busily courting. There now followed a series of mealy-mouthed PR statements. Sitwell first issued a public apology which started, not altogether credibly, as follows: “I love and respect people of all appetites, be they vegan, vegetarian or meat eaters.” Then, a few days later, he issued a second, equally unconvincing ‘apology’; and at the same time John Brown Media, who contract-publish Food magazine for Waitrose, announced that he would be “stepping down” as editor and that they “respected” his, um, “decision”… a “decision” that Waitrose then announced they thought “right and proper.”

So. Sitwell made an idiotic mistake, ‘apologised’ straight away, and then ‘stepped down’. But here’s the thing: it was all played out as a professional conduct issue. Not as a potentially criminal one. And for that Sitwell can thank his lucky stars. Because it could so easily have been a very great deal worse for him.

* * * * *

Before considering this, let us rewind to that fateful late-October day when, in reply to Selene Nelson’s vegan pitch, Sitwell – charming Old Etonian, heir to a distinguished baronetcy, and owner of a 17th-century manor house in Northamptonshire – pressed the ‘send’ button on his computer. What was going through his mind? Why would he send an email which was so … well, bizarre (to quote one of the adjectives that its recipient used)?

As the editor of Food magazine, Sitwell surely knew that his function was more a PR one than an editorial or journalistic one. His job was to enhance the Waitrose brand, and to boost sales. And whatever his own private feelings about veganism (unsympathetic, you will have gathered), the pitch from Selene Nelson made sense and was perfectly aligned with Waitrose’s marketing strategy. So why insult the girl? And why do so, even worse, in a way which could immediately be made public to countless angry people who wished for nothing better than to express their undying hatred of good-looking patricians who are not entirely ‘woke’ where veganism is concerned?

I’m pretty sure that I have the answer.

Firstly, Sitwell’s first email to Selene Nelson was sent at 3.25pm … shortly after lunch, therefore. Secondly, I am reliably informed that for some time before this incident, Sitwell had been taking a cavalier attitude towards his job, and had been in the habit of turning up when it suited him and taking prolonged lunch breaks. So if one is to make any sense of this saga, the only plausible sequence of events is roughly as follows:

Having enjoyed an extended luncheon in a decent restaurant, Sitwell returns to his office in a carefree mood, there to find a pitch from a female vegan waiting for him in the in-box of his computer. He doesn’t like vegans (this is established beyond doubt in an article that he wrote for The Times earlier this year). So – ha ha!! – he tells her to get lost. After which, he himself is told to get lost.

This, you might think, is a suitably comic ending to an opera buffa, something of no great importance. Sitwell gets a nice pay-off (I am, again, reliably informed that he did), and Selene Nelson is schmoozed by the publishers of Waitrose’s Food magazine and gets her commission for a series on eco-friendly plant-based recipes (I’m now guessing).

* * * * *

But it could have ended so differently, with Sitwell facing a jail sentence. Here’s how.

The reactions to this saga were broadly divided between those who think that Sitwell is the victim of a hyper-sensitive PC ‘snowflake’ culture gone mad, and those who think that he is a scion of the ancien régime who should be guillotined tomorrow. Here is one of the latter opinions, as expressed on Twitter: “His email was inciting to violence [sic],” tweeted a certain ‘vesna main’ … “It is hate crime,” she continued, “and he should have been prosecuted.”

Crazy, I at first thought. But the more I looked into it, the more it became clear that those who want Sitwell sent to prison, and those who want virtually everything you can think of to be criminalised, are very much in tune with the times. Let us therefore ascertain quite how close Sitwell was sailing to the wind, legally speaking, when he sent those emails, and quite how near he came to losing his liberty.

Firstly, the claim of the tweeter ‘vesna main’ that Sitwell’s emails constituted a ‘hate crime’. In law, a crime is a ‘hate crime’ only if it is directed at a person or persons who can lay claim to one of a number of so-called ‘protected characteristics’ as laid down in the Equality Act 2010. Veganism is not one of these. Not yet, anyhow. So however aggrieved this tweeter feels, Sitwell is not guilty of a ‘hate crime’.

Secondly: Could Sitwell be got under the Malicious Communications Act 1988? Well no, not really, because “for an offence to have taken place, there must have been an intent to cause distress or anxiety.” Whereas Sitwell just wanted the vegan to go away.

Thirdly: Well then, how about the Public Order Act 1986, of which Section 15, reviled by all advocates of free speech, states that “A person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour [….] within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” As various legal commentators have noted, the exceptionally broad terms of the wording make it a catch-all net; and although the Act was clearly intended to deal with face-to-face situations, the Police started, a while ago, to use Section 15 of this Act for non-face-to-face situations, including words in the printed media.

On the basis that abusive words published in a newspaper are “within the sight” of the person likely to be offended (the person opens the newspaper, and the words it contains are visible to him), why should the same principle not be applied to words in an email, written by one person and seen by another? Yes, this Act was passed before emails came into existence. But the law is often applied in cases and circumstances which the lawmakers did not and could not foresee. Thus Sitwell might arguably be had under Section 15 of the Public Order Act. Luckily for him, however, the penalty, if he were found guilty, would be an affordable £1,000.

So far, he hasn’t got much to worry about. But now we get to the frightening bit.

According to Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, “A person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character [….].” As a result of this Act, various absurdities have taken place, including the imprisonment of a 20-year-old boy called Matthew Woods who unthinkingly posted a tasteless joke on Facebook, and for his pains received a three-month prison sentence.

And this Act applies to emails too, although official guidelines indicate that prosecution is unlikely if the author of the offending words expresses “genuine remorse” … and this, I begin to suspect, might be part of the reason for Sitwell’s rapid and grovelling public apologies.

In any case, there can be no doubt that in sending that first brief email, William Sitwell laid himself open, in theory, to prosecution under the infamous Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Surely any public prosecutor worth his salt could argue convincingly that Sitwell’s email to a sensitive vegan was of a “grossly offensive [etc etc] character”; and could also argue convincingly that Sitwell’s apology was insincere, and that there was no “genuine remorse” involved. So given the right prosecutor and the right judge (or, from Sitwell’s point of view, the wrong prosecutor and the wrong judge), it would be off to prison, where the lunch breaks are short and the food is bad. It’s all rather unlikely, I admit; but conceivable nevertheless.

 * * * * *

Let us now imagine an email scenario which is only the smallest bit removed from the exchange which took place between Sitwell and Selene Nelson, and let us imagine the far worse consequences which might flow from it.

As we know, Sitwell offended a vegan, and veganism is not a so-called ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010. So he merely lost his job. What, however, if he had, in a similar email, offended a person who could lay claim to a ‘protected characteristic’?

Consider the following (and I must emphasise that this is an imagined scenario):

Sitwell goes out to a nice long lunch with a few old chums and returns to the office in a carefree mood. Sitting down at his computer, he finds an email from a gay journalist called Fred Smith, who is pitching a series of eco-friendly gay recipes.

It so happens that Sitwell has recently had an irksome disagreement with a gay chap about something or other. He isn’t faintly ‘homophobic’, but the fact remains that the other chap was gay, and had annoyed him. Then this email pops up. Without pausing to think, Sitwell fires off the following reply: “Hi Fred. How about a series on killing gays, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? [Etc etc etc].”

You notice that I have changed one word only, from Sitwell’s original email to the vegan journalist Selene Nelson. But vitally, that word refers to a ‘protected characteristic’: gay identity.

Straight away, in this scenario, Sitwell has had it. Not only would this be a crime under Section 127 of the above-mentioned Act, but it would be a crime committed against a person in possession of a qualifying ‘protected characteristic’. So that’s automatically a ‘hate crime’, viewed very seriously by judges, and liable for an automatic ‘uplift’ in the sentence … to use the correct legal term for really screwing the defendant.

Yes, I know. I have conjured up this scenario. But my point remains. In human terms that we can all understand, the difference between my hypothetical email to the gay journalist, and Sitwell’s actual email to a vegan journalist, is minimal, even non-existent; yet in legal terms it is vast, even life-changing. In other words, if Sitwell had written to a gay journalist in the same way that he wrote to a vegan journalist, there can be little doubt that he really would be in for a sobering spell in the clink.

* * * * *

Off to jail for a silly email? One has to be careful, nowadays.

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