When Dr Anne Anderson sat at her computer on a March evening last year to host one of her usually well-received lectures, she was relieved to see that about 50 people had signed up for her online chat on Scandinavian design.
Her previous talk, delivered in conjunction with the Arts Society, had been a different story: with the nation gripped by the broadcast interview given by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to chat show host Oprah Winfrey, in which they accused the Royal Family of racism and wrongdoing, Anne had struggled to attract double figures.
With that in mind, 65-year-old Anne cracked a joke, saying that she hoped attendance would be better now she didn’t have to compete with the ‘dreaded Meghan’.
It was the start of a brief, good-natured exchange with subscribers in which the academic observed that ‘you couldn’t turn the television on without some person of a colourful’ (by which she meant excitable) ‘disposition having a moan about something’.
It didn’t seem to Anne that anyone was upset by this view at the time.
‘The interesting thing was that people seemed to agree with me. I remember one woman said she was terribly disappointed in the whole affair, and someone else was critical of the Sussexes making their claims when people were suffering such a lot because of the pandemic,’ Anne recalls now.
Not quite everyone, though. One lady in particular — a white, middle-aged woman — reported Anne to the Arts Society, telling them she considered her comment to be ‘racist’. The first Anne heard of it was when she received a brusque email two days later, telling her she had been suspended for using ‘non-inclusive’ language.
It was the start of a chilling few months which culminated in Anne’s 27-year-long status as an accredited lecturer for the organisation being removed on the basis that she was a ‘risk’.
As a result, she has lost three-quarters of her income and endured many sleepless nights replaying the events of that fateful evening over and over. At one point, she was also facing the possibility that she had cancer.
‘It was enormously stressful and upsetting,’ she says.
All this, even though she immediately offered to apologise if she had unwittingly caused offence.
Dr Anne Anderson (pictured) is claiming breach of contract against the Arts Society
Certainly, many people will struggle to see this as anything but another damning insight into the way cancel culture has penetrated every element of British life — although Anne also has a simpler take on it.
‘It feels like bullying,’ she says. ‘At no point has it felt like the society wanted to really understand my point of view. It felt like they had already decided I was guilty from the beginning. But guilty of what? Even they ultimately admitted I had not made a racist comment but still ruled it to be inappropriate. I am not sure that definition would stand up in a court of law, but it has been enough to decimate my career.’
It is one reason why Anne has decided to launch legal action claiming breach of contract. For even if you believe her turn of phrase was ill-advised, it surely doesn’t justify what unfolded next.
‘I realised enough was enough and I need to fight back,’ she says. ‘It is the principle as much as anything. I never once could have imagined myself in this situation, but sometimes you must stand up for yourself. If it can happen to me, then I feel this could happen to anyone.’
An archaeology graduate from Eastleigh, Hampshire, mother-of-two Anne has spent most of her adult life navigating the genteel waters of the lecture circuit, specialising in ceramics and furniture.
Along with Scott, her husband of 44 years and an academic whom she met as a fellow student, she has enjoyed a successful career, lecturing first at evening classes, then subsequently as a full-time lecturer in antiques evaluation at Southampton Solent University.
During that time she studied for a PhD at Exeter University, where she was awarded an honorary professorship because of her extensive research and publications.
Throughout, Anne also often gave talks for local branches of the Arts Society, a non-profit organisation that promotes interest in all forms of the arts.
It was a regular source of income that became more vital after Anne was made redundant by Southampton Solent in 2007, aged 51.
As for many of us, the advent of the pandemic meant she had to pivot her work onto Zoom — which brings us to that fateful evening of Wednesday, March 10, 2021, when she gave her talk on Scandinavian design (labelled ‘How We Got Ikea’ to pique people’s interest).
With official ‘kick-off’ at 7.30pm, Anne logged on to her laptop at about 7pm and found several people already waiting.
‘I knew around 50 people had enrolled, of whom I could see ten or so on my screen,’ she recalls. ‘I didn’t know any of them but we started chatting about family life and Covid, which were the primary topics of the time.’
That and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose ‘tell-all’ interview had generated worldwide media coverage. The talking point of the moment, it was hard not to speak about it, Anne says.
‘After joking about attendance, I remember saying something about the fact that I didn’t think Meghan had much to complain of in the Californian sunshine.’
She then made her ‘colourful’ comment, which she insists has been grossly misinterpreted. ‘It wasn’t targeted at Meghan or anyone in particular,’ she insists. ‘What I was upset about was that the television coverage had been incredibly heated and, in my view, unquestioning of their claim that the British were racist.’
It seems many of the audience agreed: Anne recalls how one said she had switched channels to watch a repeat of the quiz show Would I Lie To You?
‘People burst out laughing and I asked whether that was her judgment on the interview,’ says Anne. And that was that, or so she thought. After the lecture, Anne switched off her camera at 8.30pm with no idea that anything was amiss.
Two days later, however, everything changed.
‘Around 5.45pm on Friday evening, I got an email from the education officer at the Arts Society telling me I had been suspended due to a complaint for using non-inclusive language,’ Anne says. ‘She demanded that I hand over a copy of my recording of the lecture. I was in shock, to be quite honest.
‘I’d worked for them for 27 years but there hadn’t been one attempt to contact me to hear my side of the story. I also had no idea what ‘non-inclusive language’ meant.’
Anne was bewildered but eventually told the Society that while she was still struggling to understand what she had done wrong, she would happily fully apologise to whoever she had unintentionally offended.
‘The next thing I know, I was contacted by email to be told I would be called to a complaints panel, where I was to be questioned by, among others, the complainant and Arts Society chief executive Florian Schweizer,’ she recalls.
‘I was surprised because I’d offered to apologise and under the rules which the Arts Society themselves set, they are supposed to take the apology back to the complainant — but there was no acknowledgement they had done that. From the email it was also clear she had heard a different word to the one I used. She thought I’d referred to people of a ‘coloured persuasion’ not ‘colourful’ disposition.’
It was at this stage that Anne showed the video clip, which she believed would vindicate her. ‘I had to watch the replay on Zoom in my own house, with the complainant and Florian on the call,’ she says.
‘I hated the fact that this was taking place in somewhere I saw as my sanctuary.’
Dr Anderson had said the words ‘the dreaded Meghan’ (pictured with Prince Harry) before starting a lecture
If she had hoped that this would placate her accuser, she was wrong. ‘She wasn’t satisfied — she maintained that what I had said was racist.’
As a result, Anne was told that if she was to stand a chance of getting her accreditation back, she would have to attend a full complaints hearing.
‘It felt like they were making the rules up as they went along,’ she says. ‘It seemed I was at the mercy of this woman, whose diktat they seemed to be following whatever I might have to say.’
Later, she was given access to the accuser’s messages of complaint: ‘One of her emails said I should be banned from the society. It seemed a very extreme reaction.’
Either way, Anne felt she had little choice but to appoint a solicitor at her own expense.
She was also simultaneously coping with some alarming personal news.
‘I was waiting for an appointment at the hospital to investigate for possible ovarian cancer,’ she explains. ‘It was a very frightening time.’
Happily, Anne’s problems turned out to be the result of a cyst, but she still had to face the ‘complaints panel’ hearing.
Again over Zoom, in attendance on this occasion were the complainant, Florian and Jo Wymer, Area Chair for the Arts Society South West.
‘It was horrendous,’ Anne recalls. ‘I was questioned for an hour by Florian and Jo, although it was useful to learn that my original apology to the complainant had never been communicated to her.’
‘Wrung out’ by the experience, Anne emerged to be told that a judgment would be delivered a week or so later.
When it arrived, the verdict was that the complaints panel found insufficient evidence to prove Anne’s comments were racist.
However, they added that it could have been interpreted as racist, her discussion around the Duchess of Susssex was ‘inappropriate’ and she had brought the society into disrepute.
‘They then issued an enormous list of requirements I had to fulfil before I could be accredited again,’ she says.
‘I had to write an apology to the society, the complainant and to a member of staff I had complained about in connection with the process. I also had to be interviewed by a retired lecturer who would discuss my inappropriate behaviour, as well as going through my files from the previous 12 years or so to see if there were any other misdemeanours. I had to undertake a diversity training course.’
As Anne points out, this extraordinary list of demands was being sent to someone who is not formally employed by the society. ‘I’m a freelance lecturer. I am not employed by them and I paid £178 a year to be enrolled in their directory,’ she says.
Nonetheless she replied, saying she would do her best to try to fulfil the conditions.
‘I wrote my letters to the society and to the complainant, and then waited for the call for my ‘interview’, saying I was not prepared to go on a diversity course until that had happened.’ By this time, Anne was starting to reconsider the condition that she should apologise to the member of staff she had complained about, and whether an apology was justified.
‘A few days later I had a letter saying I had violated their conditions and I would no longer have my accreditation.’
It was followed by a letter sent out to the 300 separate branch organisations under the Arts Society umbrella, telling them Anne was no longer accredited and that while she could still be employed, it would be at their own risk.
‘That really did upset me — it was so personal,’ she says. ‘Calling me a risk seemed beyond the pale. Remember, I was found ‘not guilty’ of using racist language. What sort of risk did they mean?’
You may well wonder. Either way, it was enough for Anne’s career with the society to end. ‘Some local societies made a point of telling me they thought it was ridiculous, but most of my contracts ended,’ she says.
The impact hasn’t just been financial — although that has been considerable.
‘I’m lucky in that I have a supportive family and friends. But the fact is I love lecturing, I think I’m pretty good at it and to a large extent that has been taken away,’ she says.
‘It’s also hard not to second guess yourself. Now I lace everything with a qualifier that it’s just my opinion and I don’t mean to offend. And it shouldn’t be like that.’
Few could disagree. Now Anne must wait to see if the law can offer her any redress. ‘What the Arts Society is doing feels like an abuse of power,’ she says. ‘And it isn’t acceptable.’
When approached for comment, the Arts Society said they understood that this has been a distressing time for Dr Anderson, and that they did what they could to avoid this outcome but were satisfied they acted reasonably. They said a subsequent review carried out by Board members (who were not involved with the original complaint) concluded that they acted properly.
A spokesperson said: ‘A serious complaint of racism was made against Dr Anderson which had nothing to do with her views of Meghan or the Royal Family. We had a duty to investigate the complaint and to ensure the process was fair to Dr Anderson. We fulfilled both of those duties.’
The Society highlighted that two complaints were made and one attendee of the lecture left soon after Dr Anderson made her comments.
It noted that it was not the convening of a complaints panel that caused Dr Anderson to be disaccredited, but her failure to comply with some of the conditions imposed upon her, and her unreasonable escalations of the issue, including by speaking to the Press with what they say is an inaccurate account and bringing the Arts Society into disrepute.
A spokesperson added: ‘We are a learning organisation and a broad church of views and interests, and we welcome scrutiny and criticism. But we’re also entitled to act when allegations that are untruthful and unfair are made against us.’