Stephen Daisley

Network Rail’s cowardly JK Rowling decision

Network Rail’s cowardly JK Rowling decision
Edinburgh Waverley station (photo: Getty)
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I  ❤ JK Rowling. There, now I’m a hate-monger, too. A digital advert reading just that — ‘I ❤ JK Rowling’ — has been removed from Edinburgh Waverley station, the city’s main rail terminus. The ad was taken out by Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, a women’s rights campaigner better known as Posie Parker, who paid for a billboard in Liverpool during the 2018 Labour Party conference which read ‘woman: adult human female’. That was removed, too. Her latest display doesn’t quote anything as wildly controversial as the Oxford English Dictionary. It simply expresses affection for the Harry Potter author. So why has it been removed?

A Network Rail source has told the Times the ad was deemed ‘likely to cause offence' because of Rowling’s belief that women are a sex class with legal rights rather than a gender identity that can be opted into. The left-wing author — you know, proper left-wing: wants to change more than just pronouns — has been routinely assailed for stating a view that until recently was almost universally accepted, and in the process has been hung out to dry by middling actors who would be teaching drama at their local comp right now if it weren’t for her.

Network Rail tells the Times:

‘The poster in question is against our code of acceptance for advertising in our stations owing to its political nature. We do not allow advertising that is likely to support or promote one viewpoint over another.’

The company’s code of acceptance for station advertising excludes material that is ‘of a political nature calling for the support of a particular viewpoint, policy or action or attacking a member or policies of any legislative, central or local government authority’. If ‘I ❤ JK Rowling’ is ‘of a political nature calling for the support of a particular viewpoint’, one wonders what Network Rail would make of someone displaying LGBT Pride banners across the nation’s rail estate. All these banners carry the branding of the same company: Network Rail. You might not consider promoting Pride as political but, if it’s not, under what bizarre standard is expressing admiration for a Scottish children’s author?

Network Rail’s double standards are lamentable and speak to a cowardly corporate culture that is as progressive as its market research tells it to be. What is far more baleful is a view of politics in which victory comes not by besting your opponents in debate but by preventing a debate from taking place at all. Whether the issue is gender, race, religion or some other as yet unheard of but soon to be immutable characteristic plucked from the sharing-sized Skittles bag of identity politics, the impulse to cleanse the public square of ‘offensive’ ideas is intellectual authoritarianism swaddled in the garb of progress and equality.

A feminist might ask exactly how either of those values is advanced by preventing one woman from expressing solidarity with another woman under attack for speaking about women’s rights. A feminist might well ask that, but she ought to know that this fixation with women and their rights is very problematic in these enlightened times.

If we must have a Conservative government, it should at least make itself useful. Network Rail uses the rail estate to promote a political movement that engages in speech on one side of a current public controversy while refusing to allow the other side to use the estate for the same purpose. Ministers should instruct Network Rail to permit all advertising that meets evenly-applied standards (lawfulness, taste, decency, graphic content) or to maintain the rail estate as a politically neutral space.

This is a heavy-handed approach and one that sits uneasily with me, not least because Network Rail’s Pride banners are as harmless as Posie Parker’s advert. But state intervention may be a necessary evil until civil society can re-establish a consensus in favour of free expression. That consensus can’t come soon enough, because the unshackled discussion of ideas, facts and experiences is fundamental to good public policymaking.

This suffocating spasm of intolerance makes compromise harder to attain by injecting undiluted bitterness into even the smallest reforms in law or policy. It denies our opponents a platform but it also denies us an audience to hear our case for change. We are shouting ourselves hoarse trying to shut one another up.