Is it really ‘censorship’ that Virgin Trains won’t be stocking the Daily Mail any more? An internal company memo to staff this week announced that ‘we’ve decided that this paper is not compatible with the VT brand and our beliefs’ and that staff had raised ‘considerable concern’ about the Mail’s stance on ‘issues such as immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment’. This has prompted accusations that the train company is cracking down on free speech and therefore censoring views that it doesn’t like.
Is this true? Many have argued that as Virgin is a private company and not a newsagents, it has no obligation to give every newspaper a platform. This isn’t the state or a university stopping free debate, it’s just one company deciding not to sell another company’s products. Virgin Trains did say as an aside that they were only selling one copy of the Mail for every four trains that stocked it, which suggests that this might even be a commercial decision dressed up as a virtuous statement.
It’s worth pointing out that censorship can come from a mob as well as from the state or other powerful organisations. It’s probably not quite right to say that the Mail is being crushed by the mob, though: it’s a powerful newspaper in its own right that espouses views which, though controversial, are also held by a significant section of the UK population. Not being stocked on Virgin Trains, along with a number of other newspapers that the company doesn't sell either, isn’t the newspaper being silenced.
People who disagree with a publication’s views can reasonably respond in two ways: either by not buying it or by trying to take those views to task. This might sound like a David and Goliath battle between one angry newspaper reader and the might of High Street Kensington, but newspapers tend to adopt certain views to reflect their readers, and so if you don’t like the views, try to persuading the readers you know that yours are better (preferably without shouting or insulting them). It isn’t any more censorship to stop stocking the Mail on a train than it was censorship that my local WH Smiths in Southampton refused to sell the Portsmouth News because the manager didn’t like Pompey. It was a pretty dickish thing to do, but it wasn’t censorship.
But what’s more interesting than the debate about whether this is or isn’t true censorship is that Virgin Trains clearly feel that there is commercial gain in saying that they don’t want to sell publications which include certain views. And this tells us a lot about the way society now works. It is now sufficiently trendy to say that because you disagree with something, you don’t want it to exist. The company said that some of its staff had complained about the views held by the Mail, and so the decision was taken not to stock it If you don’t like something, then you shouldn’t have to exist in the same space as that thing: that’s the new cultural norm.
This sounds less menacing because it is advanced by reasonable, trendy types. But let’s have a think about our reaction to religious groups who make the same sorts of arguments. Christian bus drivers who take exception to driving vehicles with pro-atheist or pro-gay rights posters emblazoned on them tend not to receive the same approval: why should they dictate what goes on their bus, and what’s wrong with gay rights and atheism anyway? The argument these religious types make is that they don’t want to be seen to be endorsing views that they don’t hold, presumably because they fear other people might take up those ‘wrong’ views for themselves. But this is exactly the same as the argument that the Mail’s critics make for removing it from shop shelves: perhaps more people will read it and start agreeing with it!
This suggests that we hold our fellow humans in rather low esteem. You can’t give the Mail to people because they are too stupid to do anything other than agree with every single view in it, from the impact of high net migration figures to whether or not red wine gives you cancer. You can’t drive a bus saying ‘there’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ because the people who get on it are clearly so stupid that they will just blithely agree without any thought for their eternal damnation.
Wanting to stop opinions you don’t like has moved from the realm of socially awkward religious groups to the mainstream. So the point about whether or not stocking the Mail is censorship is actually less interesting than the fact that Virgin Trains expected to get applause for dressing up what looks like a very simple commercial decision about discontinuing a low-selling product line as a grand statement about values.