Fraser Nelson

The Spectator, the Co-op and cancel culture – a cautionary tale

The Spectator, the Co-op and cancel culture – a cautionary tale
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Earlier this month, there was a bit of a fuss when the Co-op’s Twitter account said it would not be advertising in The Spectator due to our coverage of transgender issues. This is a pernicious trend in the media and The Spectator has a policy of refusing to deal with corporates who indulge in such cancel culture. It’s a firm principle of ours, but not one I expected to apply to the Co-op – which is one of the few outfits to have explicitly stated its commitment to diversity of opinion.

I emailed the Co-op to ask what on earth had happened, and tried (unsuccessfully) to convey how serious this was. As I suspected they had been targeted by a troll farm called Stop Funding Hate which goes after corporates who advertise in publications with which they disagree. The idea is to find 30 or 40 activists – sometimes far fewer – to target the corporation’s Twitter account and persuade the social media manager that there’s some kind of a national uproar. If this trick works, the terrified social media team cave to their demands and offer some kind of apology for advertising in the target – without realising what they have just dragged their company into. In this case, a Twitter account called 'Lisa Fajita' had complained and 'Alice' from the Co-op social media team replied with news of the ban.

The theory behind Stop Funding Hate is that publications get most of their money from advertisers, not readers – so pressure exerted via advertisers can work. If you get trolls to pose as customers, you can say "I was a happy customer, but dismayed to see you advertise with the hateful Daily Bugle with all of its hate - I won't buy anymore! Boycott!". And then, with any luck, you get the corporations to panic.  If you threaten the revenue, the managers will clip journalists’ wings. This theory doesn’t quite work at The Spectator where advertising revenue is dwarfed by support from readers (we now outsell the weekday Guardian and the FT) and the company is run by one Andrew Neil.  When the Co-op tweeted that they’d binned us, he reacted in a way that I doubt they expected - and immediately announced that they were banned as an advertiser.

I suspect this was not quite the response that "Alice" had expected - and none of us expected what happened next. The row went viral - but  translated into a flood of new subscriptions to The Spectator. People, it seems, have had their fill of cancel culture and were pleased to see a publication standing up to it. We took more new subscribers that day than any day in our recorded history, ending up with over 1,000 subs: our own Co-op dividend. Then (something we didn't intend) it all started to backfire on the Co-op, with all kinds of people threatening not to shop there. At one stage, Iain Martin said he was cancelling his wine order from the Co-op – as anyone who knows Iain and his love of good wine, this would represent quite a financial hit. An analysis for PR Week found that this debacle overshadowed any other Co-op social media activity hitherto. Indulging in cancel culture turned out to be a branding disaster.

Only then did this affair reach the top of the Co-op. As I suspected all along, its chief executive had no knowledge of what his underlings had been up to. He emailed us to explain that the social media team had misspoken: the advertising agency had not been instructed to dump The Spectator. More junior marketing types had been suckered by Stop Funding Hate into a breach of Co-op policy. The Spectator's policy of a ‘lifetime ban’ is to make it clear to corporates that they cannot coming crawling back once the Twitterstorm is over and make a private apology to a publication it publicly condemns. But with the Co-op, we have accepted that this was genuinely a mistake. 

So we have made up. We have an advert from them appearing next month. And we ordered some of their own-brand champagne to the office and tried it after an episode of Spectator TV: it won a blind-tasting challenge with Moet, Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger. (It didn’t beat Pol Roger, but nothing does.)

Three takeaways from this wee drama:-

1. Cancel culture is now rebounding on corporates who engage with it. The joke – go woke, go broke – contains much truth. Companies wisely stay out of party political battles, so why enter the culture wars and disparage a chunk of their customers? Virgin Rail found this out when they were tricked by Stop Funding Hate into dumping the Daily Mail from its carriages: Richard Branson ended up overruling his marketing department and publishing a personal apology.

2. There is a risk in asking a junior social media person to speak for the whole company. "Alice" is not to blame: I suspect none of Co-op's social team were given training in how to respond to a Stop Funding Hate-style troll farm attack. The social media person is asked to respond sympathetically to complaints on Twitter: was your delivery late? A fly in your soup? Please accept our apologies etc. It's not hard to trick them into going one step further: ‘seen an advert in publication you dislike? Okay, sorry, we'll review our advertising policy. Please say you like us again!"  So with one Tweet, a firm can end up taking a public and official position - and align itself with cancel culture.

3. Publications ought to get together, and stand firm on advertisers who engage in cancel culture. I could be wrong, but I think this is the first time a publication has gone public and banned an advertiser who behaves in this way. The Spectator's experience is that doing so focuses minds at the top of the company, attracts (strong) support from existing readers - and, importantly, recruits new readers. As an industry, I'm not sure what we have to lose by taking a robust - if necessary, a collective - stance to defend our independence. This is not a left vs right battle. One of the trolls’ complaints for us, this time around, was that we ran a piece by Suzanne Moore of the Guardian. A while ago, one of The Spectator’s bigger advertisers had a problem with comments made by Matthew Parris. Let’s just say that they’re not a big advertiser now.

The Spectator is very lucky: we’re family-owned by proprietors who have no patience with the woke warriors and would rather lose money than gave an inch to advertisers who threaten editorial independence. Keeping faith with readers – serving them original and provocative opinions by brilliant writers as we have been doing since 1828 – pays off. Andrew Neil ended up joking that he hopes 'there are other woke advertisers ready to follow Co-op’s example.' At least, I think he was joking.

A final word about the Co-op. The irony here is that it has already faced down the cancel culture brigade within its own ranks. It respectfully heard their case, but replies that it has a duty to 'recognise the diversity of our members and customers, that don’t suppress the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental part of a democracy.' It adopted the following policy: 'We will not seek to affect the editorial independence of publications or channels. We will not undermine the commercial value of our society for our members. We will ensure our values and principles are clear and undiminished regardless of surrounding content.'

So what happened between us was genuinely a misunderstanding. The Co-op is one of a handful of companies (Vodafone, Virgin) that do have an explicit policy of rejecting cancel culture. We’re proud to run an advert from them in a forthcoming issue, and are pleased to put this farrago behind us.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is editor of The Spectator and columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

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