Queen there, done that: The Oxford picture story and more British media culture war lies

Isn't it a bit weird for grown-up journalists to obsess about student politics?

In the 1970s, it became mandatory for citizens of North Korea to have a portrait of Kim Il-sung in their homes. The rule was quickly extended to all factories, airports, and railway stations. Then, in 1980, the Kim Il-sung portraits were joined by a picture of his son, the then-leader Kim Jong-il. During the 80s, the two portraits were also added to rail and subway carriages.

There are complex rules on how the portraits should be placed — always high on a prominent wall, looking downwards — and there are random checks to make sure they are being kept clean. The portraits are distributed with a special white cloth that is used only for cleaning them.

The laws against “disrespecting” images of the leaders are harsh and also cover pictures in newspapers, which are collected and disposed of ‘respectfully’ rather than simply placed in normal rubbish bins.

The United Kingdom is not North Korea, but you could easily look at footage of its regular parades for the unelected old lady that serves as our head of state and get confused. The way the political right fetishises images of the Queen may also feel somewhat familiar.

While most people got over ritual obsession with images of her maj around the time that Jamie Reid stuck a safety pin through her nose and swastikas in her eyes to promote The Sex Pistols single God Save The Queen in 1977, the Right’s obsession with symbols has surged in recent years. And a story from Oxford once again has them metaphorically kicking in their TV screens…

Perpetually-thirsty drink driving expert Paul Staines — a 54-year-old man who dropped out of university in the late-80s — published a story on his Guido Fawkes website yesterday headlined Exclusive: Woke Oxford Students Vote To Take Down ‘Colonial’ Queen’s Portrait.

If co-conspirators thought King’s College apologising for mourning the death of Prince Philip was wrong, look away now: Guido can reveal an Oxford college has agreed to remove a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II because she “represents recent colonial history”. Down with the Queen! Up with middle-class university intellectuals…

A committee of students from Magdalen’s Middle Common Room agreed by a substantial majority to take the portrait of Queen Elizabeth down from their wall, and to explore replacing the portrait with “art by or of other influential and inspirational people”. Any future depictions of the Queen or Royal Family will now be subject to a committee vote. Stalin would be proud…

The committee meeting minutes, passed to Guido, reveal the statements made by students were anonymized, although the motion was moved by Matthew Katzman. One student claimed that “patriotism and colonialism are not really separable”. Another claimed the move was not about “cancelling” the Queen, saying the committee was not capable of doing so: “This is about our communal space and making people feel welcome.”

Royalist opponents of the take-down warned:

“… it is worth considering the reputational damage that this motion would have if passed, not only for our common room and College, but for Oxford students more generally. In an era where debates on no-platforming and cancel culture rage strong, effectively ‘cancelling’ the Queen and brandishing her a symbol of colonialism – so often used as a synonym for racism – sends a dire message that is sure to enrage. Moreover, it is culturally insensitive for a common room so heavily comprised of international students to seek to remove a national symbol from a British institution. The cultural heritage of all nations has the right to be respected, and a common room that does not do so cannot claim to be inclusive.”

Ultimately it was agreed that “for some students depictions of the monarch and the British monarchy represent recent colonial history” and that the portrait should come down. The student group will now explore whether the painting can be auctioned. Presumably, Queen’s College’s days are numbered…

It doesn’t take Sherlockian detective skills to deduce that the minutes of the MCR meeting were passed to Guido Fawkes by the conservative students whose royalist warning is quoted at length in the story. And it’s all a little bit pathetic.

Sayre’s Law — taken from a quip made by the US political scientists and Colombia professor Wallace Stanley Sayre in the early-50s — says: “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” But increasingly over the past 20 years, the British media has delved into debates in student unions to stoke the culture war.

Nominally ‘grown up’ newspapers should not be reporting on minor antics in student common rooms. It results in the (correct as it happens) impression that journalism is an industry full of sad acts suffering from arrested development, still fighting the student politics battles of their youths.

But ‘grown up’ papers leapt on the Guido Fawkes story regardless, even as the President of Magdalen College, the respected high court judge and barrister, Dinah Rose issued a calmly-worded correction to Staines’ hyperbole:

So the real story of the Magdalen MCR portrait of the Queen is that it was purchased and put up by one group of students in 2013 and another group of students voted to take it down 8 years later. For those North Korea-style portrait fetishists in the British media, we have the good news that no prints were harmed in the making of this tale.

But stirred up by Guido Fawkes’ assertion that “Stalin would be proud…” of the MCR’s decision — the dead Soviet dictator famously being a fan of voting — the rest of the British press immediately lost its collective mind.

Over at Britain’s premier fanzine for tweedy fascists, The Daily Telegraph, we have the entirely balanced and hysteria free headline Queen becomes latest victim of cancel culture as portrait is removed from Oxford college. The story accompanying it required the efforts of reporter Craig Simpson — whose last 5 bylines are scare stories about race — and Political Correspondent Tony Diver, whose name can be sung to Dio’s Holy Diver and should have better things to do.

Completely neglecting to mention that they cribbed the story from Guido, Diver and Simpson chased down Magdalen MCR President Matthew Katzman who was pointedly named in the original story. He told the paper:

It has been taken down. It was decided to leave the common room neutral. That was what this was about.

But, of course, having decided that this is an example of the all-encompassing culture war, it’s not a good enough explanation for The Telegraph writers, who go on to write of “widespread criticism” and delight in an intervention by Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson — Frank Spencer in an amateur production of House of Cards — who tweeted:

Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd. She is the Head of State and a symbol of what is best about the United Kingdom. During her long reign, she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world.

With comment from the stupidest man in the cabinet — possibly Williamson’s greatest achievement — secure the Telegraph sought indignation from one of the stupidest men in the whole of parliament, perma-angry anthropomorphic bag of jelly Sir John Hayes, chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory malcontents.

Having wound the little crank in his back, The Telegraph writers just had to let Hayes go and he rattled off one of his standard indignant responses:

The sad thing is that you would think that the people of Magdalen College Oxford are reasonably bright, and this decision would suggest that they are not. The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and respected across the world as such, and to try to suggest anything otherwise is a dishonest distortion. The people involved should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Hayes is the man who encouraged MPs to “vote with Jesus” during the debate about extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland, frequently calls for death sentences to be back on the statute books, and referred to the antisemitic trope of ‘cultural marxism’ in a letter to The Telegraph attacking the National Trust. If anyone should know about shame, it’s that blathering bigot.

The Telegraph rounds off its story by turning the reader’s attention to Dinah Rose, who it notes:

… has come under fire over her representation of the Cayman Islands in a legal case in which the Caymanian government opposed the legality of gay marriage. She has voiced her support for LGBT rights and retained her place at the college.

That faint sound you can hear is a dog whistle being blown with increasing fury. The small fact that the Telegraph writers omit is that Rose was supported by the college’s Junior Common Room in another one of those pesky votes that called for her to continue as the college’s president.

Inevitably The Sun also lifted the Guido Fawkes ‘story’ but referenced where it had taken the tale from, unlike The Telegraph. Its piece focused on Gavin Williamson’s ‘prefect who keeps getting bogwashed by bigger boys’ intervention. The headline reads, WOKE JOKE Gavin Williamson slams Oxford students who voted to remove Queen’s pic from common room as she ‘represents colonialism’.

The Sun also carried the quote from Sir John Hayes, who was no doubt phoning up all his favourite hacks to offer them the benefit of his spittle-flecked wisdom and found space to include the intervention from the unofficial (and self-appointed) Minister for Morons, Piers Morgan, who fumed:

FFS. These woke lunatics are beyond parody. Can we vote to have Monarch-ordered Tower of London imprisonment powers restored for these insolent wastrels?

A reminder: Some people took down a picture they own.

The Sun’s news story, bylined to reporter Sarah Grealish, is one of 11 pieces written by her yesterday. How much original reporting and sourcing do you think a reporter is able to do when pumping out 11 stories in a single shift?

Of course, The Daily Mail/MailOnline also picked up on the story, slapping one of its traditional SEO-chasing mega-headlines on the piece — Education secretary slams 'absurd' cancelling of the Queen as students at Oxford's Magdalen College vote to take down 'unwelcoming' portrait of the Monarch from graduates' common room because she 'represents recent colonial history'

Dual-bylined to Rory Tingle and Tom Pyman, the Mail’s story has done the job perfectly with over 7,000 comments at the time of writing. It includes all the quotes you’ll find in other stories and gloms together a lot of previous ‘woke gone mad’ coverage about universities to push up the amount of time readers spend looking at the page.

But one interesting inclusion, in terms of seeing how Mail journalists shape a story is this…

Twitter user Samantha Smith said: 'The Queen was a pioneer of anti-racism in an era of widespread segregation and apartheid. Imagine trying to cancel the reigning monarch.'

Samantha Smith, hey? Sounds like a very normal and ordinary Twitter user and I’m certain no other context is required.

Samantha Smith is an intern for Conservative MP Lucy Allen, has contributed to The Spectator, The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph and… The Daily Mail. But including those details might have eroded the Mail writers’ implication that she’s merely an aggrieved member of the public.

Since the culture war is a cross-Atlantic project and angry clicks can come from anywhere, the New York Post has run with the story, slapping the subtly inaccurate headline Oxford college votes to nix Queen’s portrait over ‘colonial history’ on its story.

Unsurprisingly, The Evening Standard also covered the fake controversy with a piece headlined Oxford students vote to remove portrait of Queen from common room as ‘she is a symbol of colonialism’. Well, Lord Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation has got to earn that title, right?

More depressing, however, is the fact that The Independent and Daily Mirror, once nominally on the left of the extremely narrow spectrum of British media, both jumped on the story with pieces headlined Gavin Williamson says Oxford students’ removal of Queen portrait is ‘absurd’ and Oxford students vote to remove Queen portrait because she 'represents colonial history'.

The Guardian at least diverges from the line established by the initial Guido Fawkes piece, headlining its coverage President of Oxford college defends students’ right to remove Queen’s photo putting the focus on Dinah Rose’s defence of actual free speech over Gavin Williamson’s Telegraph-pleasing tantrum tweet.

The inevitable cycle of British media outrage means that the story of the students and the portrait will now make its way into the columns of hacks struggling for something to write about. The detail and nuance will be sandblasted away, leaving only an inscription that reads, ‘Students hate our beloved Queen’.

The real fact — some students decided to take down a picture that some other students bought not that long ago — will be ignored in favour of the shambling zombie fact that better serves the ongoing culture war narrative. Newspapers who have plenty of actual news to report on and analyse will dedicate words upon words to a minor decision made in a student common room, elevating Syre’s Law to ludicrous levels.

And here’s GB News’ Colin Brazier giving us a preview of what its take on the story will be when it launches this weekend:

We are surely only days away from someone irritated potato with a column in The Daily Telegraph arguing with a straight face that a picture of the Queen should be placed in every public building.

Maybe they could take some tips from the Kims…