With the prospect of a looming coronavirus pandemic and the fate of the £106billion HS2 project hanging in the balance, the fate of a 67-year-old veteran broadcaster forced to quit his job after 40 years seems of little consequence.
Except it isn’t. It is entirely right that this has become an issue that is dominating front pages, news bulletins and social media because it cuts to the heart of the culture war in Britain that has, in my opinion, taken an alarming turn for the worse.
To recap briefly: In one corner sits ITN newsreader and esteemed journalist Alastair Stewart. In the other is Martin Shapland, a man of whom until yesterday the world was largely unaware, but who once stood as a council candidate for the Lib Dems (unsuccessfully).
Goodness knows how these two found each other, but two weeks ago they started exchanging barbs over Twitter about the funding of the Royal Family.
It is entirely right that this has become an issue that is dominating front pages, news bulletins and social media because it cuts to the heart of the culture war in Britain that has, in my opinion, taken an alarming turn for the worse, writes Tony Sewell
Good Morning Britain’s Political Editor Ranvir Singh (left) and Alastair Stewart (right)
As tends to happen on social media, their disagreement suddenly got salty and Mr Stewart – in an attempt to highlight what he regarded as his interlocutor’s pomposity – was moved to tweet a passage from Measure For Measure, surely Shakespeare’s dullest play.
‘But man, proud man, Dress’d in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d – His glassy essence – like an angry ape.’
This was enough to whip Mr Shapland, who is black, into a fury and accuse the ITN newsreader of being a ‘disgrace’ for ‘referring to me as an ape with the cover of Shakespeare’.
He complained to ITN and Mr Stewart duly jumped before he could be pushed, confessing to a ‘misjudgment which I regret’.
Yes, he should regret it – but I very much doubt that Mr Stewart meant that quotation to be taken as a racial insult. He does not strike me as the sort of person who would call a black man an ape, either directly or by implication.
Indeed, since news of his departure broke, I’ve been struck by how many of Mr Stewart’s colleagues – many of them of colour – have spoken of him as a civilised and supportive presence in the newsroom.
Elsewhere, his defenders pointed out that he sent the same Shakespearean passage to other Twitter users in the past who were not black. If true, there can be little doubt that he did not discriminate against or abuse Mr Shapland because of his race.
More likely, it seems, is that he was simply guilty of wanting to flaunt his knowledge of Shakespeare and put another Twitter user down.
ITN newsreader Mary Nightingale announces her ‘friend and mentor’ Alastair Stewart has been forced out by their bosses over a Twitter spat
Yet there is something deeply concerning about how this latest online bust-up manifested itself: Namely, why exactly did Mr Shapland decide to cut short a worthy debate about royal budgets and make knee-jerk allegations of racism?
It was weak of him when the debate got heated to play the race card. And yet it is all too typical of the contemporary discussion about race.
Where once marginalised people fought for the right to participate in the public sphere – and discuss anything and everything – there is an increasingly insular trend today, especially among younger adults, to shroud political and social discussion in the divisive cloak of identity politics.
And we have reached the depressing point where anyone of colour is expected to view every comment through the prism of race.
I do not tweet because I don’t care for the abuse that it can trigger, but I do occasionally look at Twitter feeds and I see black men and women going back and forth in endless arguments over real and perceived racial taunts.
It provides a contrast to the harsh world of racism that I encountered as a teaching assistant in London 20 years ago when the English language did need cleansing.
During our weekly staff meetings our white supervisor would sometimes use the phrase ‘n***** in the woodpile’. The racism was so deep that she didn’t realise that this was highly offensive to the black teachers in the room. We did call her out and she was shocked.
This was enough to whip Mr Shapland (pictured), who is black, into a fury and accuse the ITN newsreader of being a ‘disgrace’ for ‘referring to me as an ape with the cover of Shakespeare’, writes Tony Sewell
Racism is, of course, still very much a fact of life for many in Britain and I would never seek to minimise its impact. However, I refuse to carry the burden of race that sees an offence at every corner or sentence – like another Shakespeare character, Macbeth, who sees the ghost of Banquo at every corner.
But those who attempt to distort a perfectly innocent comment and herald it as proof that an individual is racist or that Britain is stuffed with racists are either factually mistaken or intellectually dishonest.
And yet while I despair at the close-minded, often censorious nature of contemporary discourse, I also worry that matters could get very much worse before they get better.
Any discussion of race all too often descends into an ugly bloodsport contest played out on social media, which is the preferred battleground of the morally superior so-called ‘woke’ brigade among us.
But in recent months I believe we have reached an alarming turning point in this culture war.
After years of being belittled and lectured to about everything from global warming and gender rights to racial politics and Brexit, we are starting to see a backlash from the ‘unwoke’ that, while understandable in motive, is proving equally nasty when played out in public.
In their attempt to fight back against political correctness, the ‘unwoke’ are often baited into responding in an arrogant and toxic fashion.
In this context, Mr Stewart is a minor offender. He is not guilty of racism, but I would suggest that perhaps he may be guilty of arrogance.
Of course, in the past it would never have occurred to a newsreader to share his political outlook with a member of the viewing public.
When the great Sir Trevor McDonald read the news on ITN, at a time when the channel’s viewing figures were much higher than they are today, we had no idea what he thought about politics or race – or the price of fish.
He would certainly never have felt the need to use Shakespeare to insult a member of the public.
As I write this, I am in Jamaica where I am organising a competition of school productions of Shakespeare – the prize for the best is a trip for pupils to Britain.
Those who say Shakespeare is irrelevant to the young or that the playwright was inherently racist in his characterisation of Jews or people of colour, for example, should come here and see how young Jamaicans relish the Bard’s use of language and metaphor.
Rather than decry an innocent passage from Measure For Measure as akin to a speech by Oswald Mosley, what I am finding is that Jamaican children focus on the real message in Shakespeare’s greatest works.
For them, Hamlet is a play about a man without a father – which is sadly too often the case on this island.
And Othello isn’t important because it’s about a Moor, but because it encapsulates everything you could ever want to know about goodness, about loyalty, love and jealousy.
Shakespeare is a hero to these children, not the writer of plays to scour to find grounds for offence. Perhaps Mr Shapland might deem this observation worthy of wider distribution when he next sits down to tweet.
Dr Tony Sewell is an educational consultant and chief executive of the charity Generating Genius