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October 7, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:25am

The Stage accused of ‘cowardice’ after removing comment articles on theatre’s gender-neutral toilets

By Charlotte Tobitt

Theatre news website The Stage has been called “cowardly” after deleting two comment articles sharing opposing views about gender-neutral toilets which have been brought in at the Old Vic Theatre in London.

The website issued a statement on Twitter today saying it had taken the articles down after receiving what it described as “strong responses” from readers, adding they had “only polarised the debate further”.

Freelance journalist Sarah Ditum, whose article is one of those to have been deleted, told Press Gazette it amounted to “gross editorial cowardice”.

The Old Vic announced last week that it had ditched its male and female toilets for gender-neutral stalls and separate urinals.

The Stage subsequently commissioned regular contributor and former executive director of Camden People’s Theatre Amber Massie-Blomfield, who defended the plan on Friday.

The piece was headlined: “The Old Vic should be applauded for scrapping single sex loos. Don’t let the Twitter storm compromise that decision.”

Ditum then followed it today with her own piece headlined: “A theatre with inadequate women’s toilets is a theatre that doesn’t care about women.”

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Both women have said they donated their fees to charities of their choice.

Backlash to the articles centred around Ditum’s article, with trans campaigners calling her “anti-trans” and “transphobic” online – claims that she denies.

Ditum told Press Gazette: “I support trans people’s rights, dignity and protection from violence.

“There is nothing in the piece that could in any way be construed as hateful or fearful of trans people, nor in my wider body of work.”

In its statement, The Stage said: “Recognising this as a divisive subject – about which our readers hold a variety of opinions – we believed that by commissioning columns representing differing opinions we would help encourage engagement and greater understanding about the subject.

“However, by framing the pieces as opposing sides of an argument we achieved the opposite of what we had intended and instead only polarised the debate further.

“We have received strong responses from our readers against both articles. We recognise this was an error on our part and would like to apologise. As a result, we have decided to remove both articles from the website.”

Editor Alistair Smith later emphasised to Press Gazette that neither of the writers were to blame for what he called the “error of judgment”.

Massie-Blomfield said on Twitter she “didn’t know that I had been commissioned to write a ‘side of an argument’.

“Rather I thought I was writing a considered piece drawing on my years of experience as a theatre producer, CEO of an NPO, and commentator on theatre issues,” she said.

Ditum, meanwhile, has republished her article on her own website to let readers decide “whether The Stage was right to pull it”.

She told Press Gazette: “As a freelancer addressing sometimes controversial issues related to feminism, I am at the mercy of my editors’ good faith.”

The journalist, who has written for the Guardian and New Statesman, said she agreed to write the piece “because I think women’s access to public toilets is a vital issue, and because I trusted the Stage to provide a platform for this conversation”.

She defended her article as “accurate, clear and in no way hateful or bigoted”.

“The Stage pulled it (and the companion piece) in response to complaints about me, without forewarning me, thereby giving credence to false accusations against me – but more importantly, denying coverage to a fundamental matter of women’s access to public space.

“The editor has told me he had no issue with any part of my piece and apologised, but this in no way compensates for the gross editorial cowardice on display.”

In reaction, Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard tweeted this afternoon: “What a spineless excuse for a newspaper. Imagine being so cowed you won’t even allow a debate on whether there should be separate toilets for separate sexes.”

Observer writer Nick Cohen also called The Stage “cowards”, adding that reading Ditum’s piece would show the title’s “spinelessness when you realise her main point is that women need toilets”.

Picture: Reuters/Mary Turner 

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