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Mark Shenton: My ‘forced’ apology is really bad news

Rosalie Craig and Kate Fleetwood in London Road. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I know full well that my work is not immune to controversy. But I am usually aware when I am likely to stir up the pot.

A major industry player, who also happens to be a good friend now, once wonderfully dubbed me “the caped crusader of the business”, holding it to account.

That’s a badge of honour I wear with pride. I love the theatre – and am a keen champion of it – but that does not mean that I’m an uncritical pushover. If my opinion is going to mean anything, I have to be free to be both positive and negative.

However, sometimes you stumble into a controversy without realising it.

Just last week, I appeared on the BBC Radio 4’s PM show – listen from 47.14 onwards on iPlayer – to talk about musicals that push the boat out, in both form and content.

It was after the Donmar Warehouse announced its forthcoming new musical, based on transcripts of the public select committee hearings into the collapse of the Kids Company charity, which will be called The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company.

The programme asked me about other quirky, unusual subjects for musicals. One that immediately came to mind, of course, was London Road, another show based on personal testimony, in this case collected by Alecky Blythe from people within a community in Ipswich who had been affected by the murders of five local prostitutes, and the arrest and subsequent trial of the murderer.

I was talking on the radio without a script and I apparently made an egregious error. I described the musical as being about “a bunch of prostitutes”. Later the same evening, I received an email from a person called Susan Cross that she was obviously circulating. The email read as follows:

Listening to PM today, I heard the interview with Mark Shenton. While talking about the new production of Kids Company he referred to a production done in the same verbatim way about the women murdered in Ipswich. I quote: “A bunch of prostitutes murdered in Ipswich.” A BUNCH. He should be ashamed. To refer to these women in this way, so brutally murdered. Such a flippant statement, I hope none of the family members of the women were listening. And here in Ipswich the girls were never referred to as prostitutes. I think he should apologise on air to the families involved, or at least make an apology via PM, and be more aware of his terminology in future.

It then escalated into a full-on Twitter onslaught that hounded me for the next few days, escalating the rhetoric all the while so that my single-word offence suddenly became plural, referring to the outrageous things I’d said.

As a friend and fellow broadcaster wrote to say: “I can’t get my head round why people are so easily ‘hurt’ these days and so quick to signal their virtuousness online and force apologies. Ffs, live radio means you can never be word perfect. Say a ‘wrong’ one and you are suddenly branded a moral leper. They’ll be waving placards outside The Stage offices next – or the NUS will ban the paper from university bookshops. And it can go global. Someone should write a play/farce about it. Oh forgot, The Crucible warned about the fascism of mass finger-pointing.”

I absolutely realise that ‘bunch’ may not have been the best choice of word. But it was a spur-of-the-moment comment on a radio show. The rage it ignited felt entirely disproportionate.

Of course, as a rallying point around the grief, guilt and frustration of the events I had brought to mind, I understand this was in a wider context. 

An original London Road cast member wrote to me to say: “When we did the show, and if we ever talked about it, we were advised to follow the lead of the Suffolk police who described the women affected as ‘women working as prostitutes’ rather than defining them as being the sum of their work. It really helped.”

Twitter storms are nothing new. But it’s a minefield for any journalist, and by now the protestors – who coalesced around a Twitter account called @SuffolkFemSociety – had successfully brought their campaign to wider attention. They wrote an open letter to the BBC and me, stating: “Really – they were a ‘bunch’ of prostitutes? A bunch of grapes? A bunch of bananas? No, Mr Shenton, they were women; individual human beings who had their lives and futures taken away.”

The Daily Mail picked it up and wanted to do a story – based on this single-word error (imagine if other media outlets did stories based on each and every time the Mail offended… they’d never write about anything else). But as this story involved the Mail’s favourite attack subject, the BBC, it was fair game.

‘Forced’ to apologise is totally untrue. That implies that I was somehow compelled to do so. No such thing. I chose to apologise

The newspaper approached me for a comment. I gave them one: “I realise that the exact form of words I used of describing the victims of the serial killer Steve Wright in Ipswich as ‘a bunch of prostitutes’ was inappropriate and insensitive. But it was made in a live radio environment and I had no intention of demeaning them.”

The Mail duly headlined its piece: “Theatre critic forced to apologise for his ‘reprehensible’ description of the victims of the Suffolk Strangler on BBC Radio 4.

I wrote again to the Mail journalist, Amie Gordon: “Since the sole basis of my ‘offence’ was a single misspoken word – ‘bunch’ – I must reply in kind to object to a word in your headline and report: ‘Forced’ to apologise is totally untrue. That implies that I was somehow compelled to do so. No such thing. I chose to apologise. Just as I chose to block the people who were trolling me. I simply did not want to see their stuff on my timeline. Now, of course, your story suggests that the trolling worked.”

This whole episode has been really bad news.

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