Knifed for the idea of killing vegans!

In case you missed the furore of the week, William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food magazine, ‘resigned’ after an ill-advised response to a vegan freelancer.

Selene Nelson had pitched Sitwell a “plant based meal series” to which he responded thus:

“Hi Selene.

“Thanks for this.

“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?”

Ah what japes. Eton certainly instils a certain brand of humour.

‘Killing vegans’

Unfortunately, it’s just the sort of brand of humour guaranteed to get right up the nose of vegan freelancers pitching for work. Selene decided to fight her corner and shared his email with online newsite BuzzFeed.

Result: an article about the exchange, which prompted a predictable furore on social media and calls by peace-loving vegans for William’s head. Right now.

When questioned, did the folks at Waitrose PR department row in and say “it was just a joke from Wills. We’ve known him for 20 years and he’s a good bloke”. Nope. They said:

“William’s email absolutely doesn’t represent our views about vegans and vegan food”.

It was not long before the contract publishers of Waitrose Food, John Brown Publishing, announced his departure.

“John Brown Media has today announced that William Sitwell is stepping down as Editor of the Watirose & Partners Food magazine with immediate effect,”

a statement said. Andrew Hirsh, CEO, added:

“I respect William’s decision and have therefore accepted his resignation.”

Waitrose said:

“We have been informed by John Brown Media, who produce the Waitrose & Partners Food Magazine, that William Sitwell is stepping down as Editor of Waitrose & Partners Food magazine with immediate effect.

“In the light of William’s recent email remarks, we have told John Brown Media that we believe this is the right and proper move – we will be working with them to appoint a new editor for the magazine. We have had a relationship with William for almost 20 years and are grateful for his contribution to our business over that time.”

The great divide

Many journalists feel Sitwell stepping down was unjust. Giles Coren commented that “it was a stupid email but should not be a career-ender.” and Peter Oborne of the Spectator said it was “a dark day for free expression”. His former schoolmate Tom Parker Bowles was more passionate: “Jesus Christ. This whole @WilliamSitwell business is a disgrace”.

Selene, meanwhile, quickly took the opportunity to write in The Independent, under the preachy headline, “being vegan doesn’t make me a snowflake, it makes me moral”. Whatever you think of her grabbing the moral high ground, she undeniably includes some fair points, not least the societal imperative to eat less meat if we are to meet the challenge of climate change.

Still, it’s hard not to sympathise with William Sitwell. Despite a certain swagger which comes with being an Eton-educated baronet, he’s a pretty mild-mannered guy, and an unlikely hate figure. It was clearly just a joke (albeit a slightly offensive, unprofessional and gratuitously disdainful one). To go from hero to zero and to ‘resign’ from your job of twenty years tenure in one fell swoop is harsh. Shouldn’t we all have just gotten over the PC nonsense and moved on?

Off message

Unfortunately, you can see Waitrose’s point. It is a brand and its magazine is a marketing tool, pure and simple.

Sitwell was not the editor of an impartial newspaper or magazine.

According to an April 2018 survey by, there are now 3.5m vegans in the UK. Only this week, the supermarket released its annual report in which it suggested 1 in 8 shoppers are now vegan or vegetarian. A third of consumers are trying to eat less meat. Waitrose have just invested in installing vegan sections in 125 stores and, just days before Sitwell’s ‘jokey’ email had launched its Christmas vegan range of 150 products for December 25 (Nut & Beet Roast anyone?) It’s very easy to see why the folks back at HQ just didn’t see the funny side.

Ultimately, Giles Coren is right: even if it was a moment of madness, it was “a stupid email”. William Sitwell’s downfall came from being blindsided to the fact that he owed his possession of one of the better jobs in food journalism to constructing positive messages about the products his ultimate employers paid him to sell, and that un-PC jokes about a significant bit of that market from someone who was a chief-guardian of the voice of the brand were not just un-funny but poisonous to too many customers and potential customers.

In the cut-throat world of the supermarket trade, being even briefly not just off-message but anti-message is unsustainable.

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