Wake up Williamson: the Magdalen College controversy

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116884″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]It sometimes feels like the world has gone insane. That not only have context and nuance gone out of the window but that issues which are of little, if any, importance end up leading the news and then are twisted and perverted to make them not only apparently relevant but also a matter for national discussion.

This week was definitely a case in point. Students at Magdalen College, Oxford, voted to have a picture of Her Majesty the Queen removed from their common room. They had in 2013 voted to put one up and in 2021 a new set of students decided that they wanted a different picture.

They did nothing wrong. They didn’t break the law. They had a vote (I’d argue that may align with British democratic values) and they then chose to exercise their rights to free expression in the UK. I may not agree with their choice of art – but they, like I, have the right to free expression.

You may have thought that this might have been covered in the university newspaper; it might have led to a few tweets and a little banter, maybe a joke on Have I Got News For You? You’d be wrong. The English secretary of state for education felt the need to condemn the students. It then became a leading story in the national news and op-eds and Twitter mobs duly followed.

A new story in the so-called “culture wars” emerged with various politicians and commentators attempting to suggest that this was the latest woke act to re-write British history. In my opinion it wasn’t – it was a picture of the head of state in a university common room. And it was literally an act of free expression by students (I think this might count as student politics) – which is completely legitimate.

The problem is however we are apparently living in a world where politics and events have to be viewed through the prism of these culture wars. Which is resulting in bad policy and bad politics.

The British Government is currently seeking to legislate to guarantee academic freedom, its stated rationale is to “…protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers”.

In fact, when the new legislation was announced, the education secretary Gavin Williamson stated: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.

“Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.”

These are worthy sentiments, which I share. But given the actions this week by the members of the British government, I think we can all be a little confused by the inherent contradiction in their application of these values – that universities must guarantee freedom of thought, speech and debate but only if the Government thinks you’re right. That you can only debate or vote about things they agree with?  This isn’t just bad policy, it’s the worst kind of populist and divisive politics which undermines the very fight for free speech.

One of the founding principles of Index was the need to protect academic freedom – universities are cathedrals of learning and of intellectual curiosity. Their work shapes the world and provides new thinking every day – this needs to be protected and cherished. And it’s not for governments or politicians to try and define what is and isn’t acceptable free expression on campus – it’s for the institutions themselves and on this occasion, they chose to remove a picture. And fair play to them![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

He is loathsome, but I will always defend Ken Loach’s right to offend me

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116256″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I can think of few public figures I hold in greater contempt than Ken Loach. Mr Loach may be an esteemed film maker but I regard his politics as those of the sewer. His involvement in the cancelled original production of Perdition, the notoriously antisemitic play, ought to have led all decent people to shun him. Far from that happening, however, he has been widely feted and his career has soared. And yet not only do his views remain the same, he misses few opportunities to promote them.

In short, I loathe the man and find him deeply offensive.

All of which is true, but all of which should be irrelevant to anyone but me and those who are interested in my views of Mr Loach. There are many other public figures whose views I find deeply offensive. To which you rightly respond: Who cares?

Except people do care. Not about my specific response, but about the offence Mr Loach generates among many of my fellow Jews. And that is an issue.

Earlier this month, a brouhaha arose over a decision by students at St Peter’s College, Oxford, to invite Mr Loach to speak (as it happens, about his films rather than, er, Jews). Would I have invited him? I think you know the answer to that. But the invitation was issued, Mr Loach accepted, and we are where we are.

Vile as I – and, let’s be clear, many others – may find him to be, if a group of Oxford students wish to hear from Ken Loach, so be it. He has broken no laws when speaking and has as much right to put forward his views – and, of course, to talk about his films to a group of people interested in hearing from him about them – as anyone else.

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the matter. But when the event was made public, the Board of Deputies of British Jews weighed in, demanding that the invitation be withdrawn. They argued – correctly – that many Jews find Mr Loach’s views deeply offensive. But, bizarrely and ludicrously, they concluded from this that he should therefore have been banned from speaking.

The sheer idiocy of this position takes some grappling with. For most of my time as editor of the Jewish Chronicle, a recurring story has been how representatives of Israel face violence and intimidation on campus to stop them speaking. In other words, one group of people believe that the offence they take at hearing a certain view entitles them to silence that view. The Board of Deputies has rightly criticised such attempts.

Do they really not see the contradiction? For Jewish students, the greatest campus battle at the moment is the right to be heard. All too often they are shouted down and attacked by anti-Israel activists. The Board of Deputies’ position is that if someone is regarded as offensive by enough people, they should be denied the opportunity to speak. Presumably anywhere, always. If Mr Loach is to be denied the chance to speak at St Peter’s, is he also to be barred from promoting his films? Or from making films?

As one can see, the whole thing unravels with a moment’s thought – as well as being so obviously counter-productive. It will not be long before the next attempt to silence an Israeli speaker, this time doubtless claiming to be based on the Board of Deputies’ own logic, that their presence is offensive to many people.

As readers of this site well know, free speech issues can be complicated. But not always. Sometimes the issue is obvious. I loathe Ken Loach. But I defend his right to speak.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]