Robert Jackman

William Sitwell’s mistake wasn’t to make a joke about vegans

William Sitwell's mistake wasn't to make a joke about vegans
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William Sitwell, the writer and food critic made famous by Masterchef, has quit as editor of Waitrose's food magazine following the backlash against his response to a vegan journalist. When Selene Nelson wrote to Sitwell to pitch a series of 'plant-based' recipes, he replied with another idea: "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?". This spirited response – which, if nothing else, suggests some confusion about the ingredients of red wine – has now cost Sitwell his job.

For some it will come as no surprise – Sitwell is hardly the first person to have their career imperilled by a Twitter witch-hunt. Taking offence is now something of a competitive game and this seems to be only getting worse. Factor in the enthusiasm of big food retailers to capitalise on the increasingly lucrative vegan market and Sitwell probably never stood a chance. But as a struggling freelance journalist, there’s something that pains me about Sitwell’s departure. After all, when I saw the story break on Monday, my first thought was that the real story had been missed: an editor had actually bothered to respond to a freelancer.

The life of a freelancer isn’t easy. Before I joined The Spectator, I was forever sending detailed pitches to editors only to get...nothing in response. It can be hugely demoralising and frustrating. If I’d received a response like Sitwell’s – well, at least it would have started a conversation.

Of course, staying on top of an editor’s inbox is never easy. Someone in Sitwell’s position would have been bombarded with hundreds of press releases each day – most of them sent by tenacious PRs keen to plug their products. That he was able to read freelance pitches is a testimony to his professionalism – if that means that the occasional writer receives a salty response, I’d still say it’s better than the alternative. No-one likes to be ignored. And no doubt Ms Nelson’s career will benefit from the increased exposure. But as a former freelancer, I don't think Sitwell’s departure is something to celebrate.