Virgin Trains’ scrape with the Daily Mail was a confusing, worrying and disappointing mess. But it shouldn’t be ignored.

I’ve never really known what the Virgin Trains brand stands for — aside from trying to be a slightly more ‘down with the kids’ version of any other train operator. I mean sure, they’ve got Spandau Ballet in their ads, emojis in their tweets and, of course, THAT hilarious announcement in the toilets (“your ex’s sweater”… gets me every time) but, outside of their marketing, I’ve never considered them anything more than ‘the red one’ and ‘my only option if I want to get to London with spending eight hours on a coach’ and ‘Jesus, these guys must be making a killing off of selling non-existent wi-fi.” That was all Virgin Trains has ever meant to me… until earlier this month.

For a brief few days this month, the Virgin Trains brand actually stood for something.

Now, as one of your typical left-leaning, avocado-eating, UKIP-hating, Guardian-reading, liberal loonies, I was never going to be gutted about not being able to pick up a copy of the Mail on my next jaunt down to Euston. So full disclosure there. But the newspaper being dropped wasn’t what really excited me about Virgin Trains’ surprise announcement.

What I really enjoyed was the notion of a brand taking its values and making them an actual part of the way they behave. Values that I didn’t even know they had until they exploded them into one of the biggest news stories of the week. See, almost every brand out there has ‘values’ to some extent. But, an awful lot of the time, that’s all they are. Values. Instead of being translated into actions or behaviours, they manifest themselves as nothing more meaningful than cutesy branded content accompanied by whatever applicable hashtags are circulating at the time. And, generally speaking, even this doesn’t happen until the cause has so much momentum behind it already that the brands piling in with proper support are indistinguishable from the brands jumping on the bandwagon for some cheap retweets.

This kind of brand ‘activism’ is, all too often, hollow and opportunistic — it occurs precisely at the point of being too late to effect change, but early enough to feel like a part of it.

That’s not what I got from Virgin Trains’ announcement last week though. What I got was essentially this:

“The Daily Mail may be the second most popular newspaper in the UK but we think its values are entirely at odds with ours. If we really believed that, we wouldn’t be selling copies of it on our trains. So, despite its enormous popularity, we’re no longer going to.”

“Fair play” I thought. Because, regardless of whether Virgin Trains’ values are or aren’t the same as my own, I can’t deny that they’re fully backed by the company’s actions. That’s not what a large portion of the internet thought though. What happened online is that the news became a trending topic on Twitter. And, as we all know, that usually only means one thing. Drama.

The Daily Mail’s response was odd.

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail’s people were quick to voice their disappointment. Equally unsurprisingly, their response somehow managed to be confusingly muddled in its premise yet, at the very same time, entirely unwavering in its anger. Aside from a couple of tepid nods to ‘censorship’ and a brief mention of Brexit the gist of their initial response was to completely refute Virgin Trains’ claims that the paper had been pulled for ideological reasons — suggesting instead that the company’s move was simply a space saving measure, prompted by declining sales. In the first article they ran on the story, their objection seemed to be that all Virgin were really interested in was the profitability of stocking and selling the paper.

“For the record Virgin used to sell only 70 Daily Mails a day. They informed us last November that to save space, they were restricting sales to just three newspapers: the Mirror, FT and Times. They gave no other reason, but it may be no coincidence that all those titles, like Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson, are pro-Remain.”
- A Daily Mail spokesperson

The least surprising thing of all is that this line of argument didn’t get an awful lot of traction with the public. I don’t think many people, regardless of their political beliefs, would argue that any business isn’t perfectly within their rights to limit their stock as a space saving measure. I mean, there a lot of other things Virgin doesn’t sell for that very same reason; Green & Blacks chocolate, wheelbarrows, those weird gel packs that heat up when you click the floaty metal bit in them, the game ‘Buckaroo’, newspapers such as the Independent, the Daily Star and the Guardian… and many other things that don’t sell often enough to justify the amount of storage space they occupy.

The Daily Mail was also keen to make a point about the rising cost of rail travel, reminding readers that it was UK taxpayers’ money that had been used to bail out Virgin’s Trains’ East Coast franchise — something that the paper had strongly criticised at the time. Seemingly, whoever decided that this should be part of the Mail’s stance missed the fact that the East Coast franchise were never even mentioned removing the paper at all — it was only the West Coast trains that were planning to do so. A confused and under-researched comeback from the paper and par for the course, perhaps — but it was one that prompted a far more focused and single-minded response from the public.

The public’s response was alarming.

As expected, the reaction from the public wasn’t all that positive either. But it was interesting that the outcry didn’t come exclusively from supporters of the Daily Mail. For perhaps the first time in history, the majority of their readership and a good portion of my lefty mates were aligned in their anguish.

Rather than countering the values held by Virgin Trains and challenging the beliefs themselves, the backlash focused on the fact that the brand had acted on them and the implications of that on wider society. The operator’s decision to cease the sale of a specific paper was branded by many as an attack on free speech and democracy. ‘Censorship’ became the word of the day and quickly dominated the conversation. And that, I think, is the most concerning thing about the whole saga.

Why? Because this is not censorship. Nor is it an attack on free speech, a blow to democracy or a step towards the eradication of a free press. To treat it as such is to discredit the seriousness of actual censorship around the world. Censorship that is dangerous, oppressive and real. Censorship that is enforced by government, with terrifying consequences. This isn’t that, and it isn’t even a step towards it. Virgin Trains never ‘banned’ the newspaper — their Daily-Mail-reading customers are treated no differently to any others and are welcome to board their trains with their own copy. The views of the publication are not being covered up or silenced. A company simply decided that they no longer wish to be one of the channels through which the newspaper is purchased.

I find it concerning that this kind of decision can, in any way, be interpreted as some kind of atrocity. Because the alternative is that we live in a world in which companies no longer have the freedom to make decisions like this. That the right for companies to choose which of their products they do and don’t sell (in accordance with the values held by their employees) is stripped from them and handed, instead, to the government. I don’t like the sound of that place but, if we truthfully believe that what Virgin Trains did was fundamentally wrong, we have to believe that this alternative reality is right.

That, to me, is worrying. Particularly given that these accusations weren’t coming from some fringe bunch of conspiracy theorists or a vocal handful of your Daily Mail comments section regulars, pricking up their ears at the first sign of an opportunity to get furious about something. The rhetoric around censorship, democracy and freedom of speech was being tossed about by some of the most powerful people in the country. Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Serious people who, presumably, are either gravely concerned by this corporate attack on some of the most fundamental cornerstones of UK society or are throwing around some pretty serious allegations rather flippantly.

If the reason we’re assuming censorship is that the decision came from a place of political, sociological or philosophical ideology (as opposed to, say, wanting to save space or maximise profits as the Mail is suggesting), then one of the first questions we need to ask ourselves is whether or not we think it’s acceptable for private companies to have ideological beliefs at all. If it is okay, we can’t pick and choose which beliefs they are allowed to have. And if it is okay, we cannot condemn those companies for actually acting upon them (unless, of course, doing so would contravene human rights laws). If it isn’t okay for private companies to have ideological beliefs, then yes, we need to hold these companies to account. But that includes those companies whose beliefs are widely considered to be ‘good’. Like companies who provide ideological and financial support to immigrant-rights organisations in response to Trump’s travel ban.

Additionally, we would need to properly investigate the actual reasons behind the absence of almost every other newspaper title on Virgin Trains. To establish whether or not our basic civil freedoms are under attack, we would need to find out what the company’s heads were really thinking when they decided not to stock those publications. But we won’t. Because, deep down, I think we all know that there isn’t some grand corporate conspiracy at play here. I think we all know that we don’t really need to know the ins and outs of why you may only find a small selection of different newspapers in a tiny train carriage shop. I know

I’d quite like to see my favourite paper amongst them but, for the moment, I’m left having to buy it at the station. Maybe that’s because Virgin thinks it’s too expensive. Maybe that’s because there’s not much demand for it. Maybe that’s because the company thinks it prints a load of shit and is incompatible with their values. Whatever their reasons, I’m not going to cry about and I’m certainly not going to start flinging the c-word around (that’s ‘censorship’, just to be clear).

Richard Branson’s response was disappointing.

After a deafening week-long silence, Virgin Trains re-entered the fray and spoke for the first time since kicking the whole fiasco off. Richard Branson announced that the operator would, in fact, continue to sell the Daily Mail on trains across all of its franchises — denying any knowledge of the decision until it hit the press.

For a brief few days, I admired the Virgin brand for standing for something and actually living it. Something bigger and more meaningful than an automated toilet announcement. It wasn’t because they stood for something I happen to agree with, but because they stood for something that they agree with. In the same way that, whilst I passionately disagreed with what those behind Are You Beach Body Ready? stood for a couple of years ago, I admired their ability to stand behind it even in the face of such vehement criticism. But, unfortunately, Branson chose not to back his company’s beliefs. At least, not those expressed by his employees regarding immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment. Instead, he vetoed them, explaining that their decision “has not been seen to live up to principles of freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views”.

That language was telling. Telling of Branson’s concern about not being seen to live up to these principles. And I think that’s what it came down to. The public screaming loud enough that they became too scary for the guy at the top. Am I saying it’s wrong that Virgin listens to its customers? Not really. But I think it’s sad that, given the power that huge corporations have to effect the change they want to see in the world, they’ll so quickly and completely abandon the values that come from within the company — from its heads and its employees — if enough pressure is piled on from outside it. It’s even sadder when the pressure from outside manifests itself not as opposition to the company’s beliefs, but opposition to the concept of a company acting on them.

Someone once said something along the lines of “I may not agree with what you are saying but I would fight, to the death, for your right to say it.” What much of the opposition to Virgin Trains’ announcement has sounded like is “I do not agree with your beliefs (that the Daily Mail peddles hate) and I therefore do not support your right to act upon them (by not purchasing copies of the paper and reselling them on your trains).”

For the Virgin brand, the sad reality of the outcome is that Branson’s U-turn wins nobody over. For passionate supporters of the Daily Mail, the bitter taste left by the original move will remain. The damage is done.

Those who have campaigned hard to see the paper dropped forever will, of course, be left extremely disappointed by the outcome.

Those who interpreted Virgin Trains’ original decision as an attack on democracy or freedom of speech will likely be more sceptical of the brand’s integrity than they were before.

And those who, like me, were simply impressed by the sheer balls of the move will be left feeling slightly deflated and confused by the way the company has flip-flopped its way through the whole, only to conclude with a statement that essentially reads “loads of you said we were wrong so we’ve changed our mind.”