Cancel culture: what is it and does it actually exist?

·Freelance news writer, Yahoo UK
·5-min read
Fearne Cotton says live broadcasts cause anxiety because of cancel culture. (Getty Images)
Fearne Cotton says live broadcasts cause anxiety because of cancel culture. (Getty Images)

Fearne Cotton is not one of the more controversial figures in British public life.

Yet it was striking to hear the TV and radio presenter reveal she suffers anxiety when doing live broadcasts, because she is worried about saying the wrong thing and upsetting people.

Speaking in early May, she said: “Knowing that it’s live, people are going to judge, [knowing] that cancel culture exists and that people are pointing fingers.”

That term – “cancel culture” – generally refers to attempts to ostracise high-profile people or organisations who have promoted certain viewpoints.

It’s largely associated with targeting those with perceived unprogressive attitudes, but some people also claim to have been cancelled for so-called un-conservative views.

Some critics argue cancel culture promotes accountability, but others say it twists public discourse and harms free speech.

It’s in this charged climate that Cotton said the pressure to say the “right thing” has “become magnified over the years”.

But, for a concept that has increasingly become a major talking point amid the “culture wars”, it will probably surprise many that the words “cancel culture” have only existed in the mainstream for four years.

King’s College London research shows how the first mention of “cancel culture” by a UK national newspaper was only in 2018.

That was one of just six mentions that year in the national press. Compare that to last year, though, when 3,670 newspaper articles included the term.

Clockwise from left, J.K. Rowling, Piers Morgan and Winston Churchill have been key names in the cancel culture debate. (Getty Images/PA)
Clockwise from left, JK Rowling, Piers Morgan and Winston Churchill have been key names in the cancel culture debate. (Getty Images/PA)

The growing level of coverage is reflected by growing public awareness. The King’s College research carried two identical surveys — one in 2020 and one this year — which asked Britons how much they had heard or read about cancel culture.

Of the 2020 respondents, 39% had heard either a lot or a little about cancel culture. Of this year’s respondents, that figure was 60%.

Awareness is different to understanding, though, and one YouGov poll from November last year found almost two-thirds (65%) of Britons don’t know what it means, compared to 35% who said they do know.

In one sense, this demonstrates the abstract nature of the cancel culture debate. On the other hand, there are countless examples of public figures who are said to have been “cancelled” over their views.

Here, Yahoo News UK looks at some famous recent examples.

Piers Morgan

Who else could we begin with?

Morgan, then Good Morning Britain presenter, left the ITV breakfast show last year following a furious on-air row with weather presenter Alex Beresford over the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey that saw him storm off set.

Watch: The moment Piers Morgan storms off GMB set after controversial Meghan Markle comments

Morgan said he did not believe Meghan’s claims from the headline-making interview. His comments sparked more than 50,000 complaints, the most in Ofcom’s history.

Morgan said he was forced out by ITV executives for expressing his opinion, but it's not done his career any harm. He recently launched his new show on TalkTV, for which he is paid lucratively, with a vow to "uncancel those who have been cancelled".

JK Rowling

The Harry Potter author has become a controversial figure over her comments on gender identity.

This controversy began in 2020, when Rowling responded to an article headlined “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” by tweeting: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Read more: Government urged to stop ‘culture war’ against civil servants

With her comments since, she has been accused of being transphobic. She has denied this, defending her comments by saying: “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction.”

Her critics have included the Harry Potter film's three lead stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Even Vladimir Putin has waded into the debate, reportedly defending her in a speech condemning cancel culture in the West. Rowling did not accept his endorsement.

Winston Churchill

The cancel culture debate also applies to those who have long since passed.

To some, Churchill is the greatest Briton of all time — he was given this title in a 2002 BBC poll — for his efforts in the Second World War, having been the foremost opponent of Nazi Germany. To others, he was a racist.

Churchill remains a hugely controversial figure and there has been intense debate about how he should be viewed through a modern-day prism, including the presence of his statue in Parliament Square.

Police surround the Churchill statue in Parliament Square, London during a BLM demonstraton, as the funeral of George Floyd takes place in the US following his death on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
Police surround the Churchill statue in Parliament Square during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2020. (PA Images via Getty Images)

It's a debate even his own memorial trust has struggled to contend with. Last year, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was accused of cancelling his memory when it renamed itself The Churchill Fellowship and took down some of his images, acknowledging his views on race are "widely seen as unacceptable today, a view that we share".

Boris Johnson was among those who said the trust was trying to "airbrush" the wartime leader's "giant achievements".

Guto Harri

An example of someone who was cancelled for promoting progressive values?

Last summer, at the height of the culture war surrounding the England men's football team taking the knee as an anti-racist gesture before Euro 2020 matches, Harri himself took the knee while presenting on GB News.

It was a gesture of support for the players who were subjected to online racist abuse following England's penalty shootout loss to Italy in the tournament final. But Harri - now Boris Johnson's director of communications - was suspended by GB News following a viewer backlash, before he eventually quit.

GB News, perceived by many to be a right-wing channel, said the gesture was an "unacceptable breach of our standards" that "let both sides of the argument down by oversimplifying a very complex issue".

Harri said of GB News: "Rather than defending free speech and confronting cancel culture, it has set out to replicate it on the far right.”