The imaginary student: Alan Rusbridger is selling the same free speech myths as every right-wing columnist

But then what do you expect from The Guardian's Tony Blair?

It’s a curious thing for the principal of an Oxford college to invent an imaginary student made entirely of straw. You’d assume that Alan Rusbridger, former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian turned Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford for the past seven years actually meets a lot of real-life breathing, talking, and thinking students. But his interview with The New Statesman this week suggests otherwise. In that article, he says:

I think this idea of my right not to be offended, my right to have a safe space, is one that’s crept up in the last five years. If you mention John Stuart Mill’s arguments on free speech to a bright 19-year-old in Oxford, they look at you a bit blankly. When you say, ‘Isn’t the best response to speech, more speech?’ it’s a new idea to them.

Perhaps it’s more that Rusbridger keeps leaping out of bushes and shouting Mill quotes at students who, quite understandably, look at him blankly while backing away. It’s more likely that this is rhetorical horseshit from Rusbridger, who recently announced his departure from Lady Margaret Hall, is out to increase his profile as a ‘public intellectual’1 opining on the nature of truth.

Harry Lambert opens The News Statesman piece by comparing Rusbridger with Tony Blair, finding parallels between the supremely-confident 90s throwbacks:

When Alan Rusbridger became editor of the Guardian in 1995, comparisons were drawn between him and another ascendant figure on the left: Tony Blair. Both men, born in 1953, reinvented their respective institutions. They helped drag the left into the 21st century and away from its “special talent for turning in on itself”, as Rusbridger put it to me.

Lambert is right that Rusbridger was seen as the Blairite new broom upon his elevation to The Guardian’s big chair, replacing Peter Preston who had held the seat for almost 20 years. He was appointed in January 1995 and two years later The Independent published a feature on his new regime headlined:

New Government! New Guardian! Alan Rusbridger is shaking up his staff with Blairite conviction

Rob Brown, then The Independent’s media reporter/columnist, wrote:

Accusations of ageism, arrogance and authoritarianism have been levelled at Rusbridger's regime since he seized upon the change of government to suggest that it might be time for changes on The Guardian's staff. A samizdat-style denunciation faxed to rival titles, including The Independent, claims that The Guardian's youthful editor is "busy trying to rid the paper of some of its most stalwart specialists ... moving or pushing out many of the best-known names from the Preston days."

Despite pulling a Francis Urquhart-style “you might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment” when Brown put the Blair comparison to him, Rusbridger told The Independent:

"The process of modernisation on The Guardian has reflected the process of modernisation in the Labour Party. We've reached the same conclusions by separate routes."

Asked to elaborate on this, he said that the old Guardian, like Old Labour, "opposed lots of things the Tories did which we'd now think weren't terribly bad in retrospect ... I mean, a lot of the trade union stuff doesn't seem as horrendous now as it seemed at the time."

He went on to boast that The Guardian was “now read by people in power”.

Brown concluded his piece with a warning…

Alan Rusbridger's young Turks, like the eager young Blairites, cannot deny the ageing process. They too will succumb to sluggishness. Who, then, will be their guardian?

… but like Blair who resolutely refuses to shuffle off the stage, no matter how stale his monologues on power now seem, Rusbridger has not gone anywhere.

Despite a Shakespearian betrayal by ‘friends’, including his successor Kath Viner, which saw him denied the role of Chairman of the Scott Trust, The Guardian’s parent company, his pronouncements are still taken seriously and he’s still treading the boards as the chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, one of 20 members of Facebook’s toothless but glitzy ‘Oversight’ Board, and part of the Taoiseach’s Future of the Media Commission in Ireland.

David Cameron famously sneered that Tony Blair “was the future once” and has since disappeared into his shepherd’s hut, scuttling out only to defend his antics with antipodean money farmer Lex Greensill, while the mega-mulleted Blair still struts about making increasingly frequent ‘rare interventions’. Similarly, those who thought that Rusbridger might be quieter once he no longer had The Guardian’s masthead towering over him have been proved wrong.

But just as Blair has inched ever more rightwards, Rusbridger’s worldview has become increasingly indistinguishable from the ‘free speech’ teethgnashers at titles like The Times and The Daily Telegraph. A man described by the former Observer editor Roger Alton as “admired, but not hugely loved”, Rusbridger is a creature of the establishment who still thinks himself a radical.

Speaking from his study at Lady Margaret Hall, Rusbridger talks of debating students “whose first instinctive position is, ‘But we want this to be a safe space, I feel threatened. Your job is to protect me.’” and Lambert writes…

… his response is well-worn: there are no safe spaces in the world. You are supposedly the brightest of your generation — if you can’t defeat those who disagree with in an argument, who can?

‘It’s a bad thing,’ he explained, ‘If the right not to feel offended overshadows the call for reason.’

This is the argument of a well-heeled, well-positioned, old white man. For the past 26 years, since he stepped up to run The Guardian, Rushbridger has had a voice that was always heard and one which he could amplify with his paper’s not inconsiderable resources.

But what if the ‘debate’ that is occurring is about your fundamental right to exist? If the terms of that debate are framed by bad actors with bad faith arguments? The liberal delusion that debate can and will solve everything is insidious. And Rusbridger’s own strawstudent argument that the young people he encounters known nothing of John Stuart Mill or notions of free speech is as bad faith as any Daily Telegraph comment piece.

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Just as a matter of fact, Mill is on the first-year reading list for students studying any kind of philosophy course at Oxford, On Liberty is a core text for the politics paper and a compulsory philosophy paper specifically on Utilitarianism. And in a blog post on the subject of the odious Prevent programme, which published during his first year as Lady Margaret Hall’s Principal, Rusbridger himself wrote2:

You are running a student union in a British university. You invite a radical speaker along to provoke debate and thinking, just as generations of student unions have always done.  John Stuart Mill would approve, believing the best response to argument was more argument.

… [Lady Margaret Hall’s undergraduate community] includes some clever philosophers, who will know their John Stuart Mill. If any of them want to write a guest blog about what the great man would have made of it all in this space I’d be happy to host it.

As Politics of NV correctly noted on Twitter, Rusbridger saw students as allies in combating Prevent, but now casts them as villains in the confected free speech battle. Rusbridger goes on to assert in The New Statesman interview that:

Editing a newspaper is “so much harder now because the young generation have no grounding in the classical view of free speech”.

Lambert doesn’t press Rusbridger on what he means by “the classical view of free speech” or whether it’s a remotely true statement. Instead, the ‘great man’ is able to wang on unchallenged with a “no, it is the children that are wrong” line.

Young people, growing up in the age of QAnon and Covid denial, are likely to have encountered all kinds of fallacies, conspiracies and bad faith arguments long before they arrive at Oxford. And many of them realise the notion that more ‘good’ speech alone is the answer to bad speech is as ludicrous as NRA gun shagger Wayne La Pierre’s infamous claim that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

The veneration of debate by people like Rusbridger always forgets a crucial element: Power. Debates do not occur in some kind of pocket dimension where every speaker has the same level of social, cultural, and economic capital. The former editor of The Guardian, sat in the comfortable surroundings of an Oxford College which he runs will obviously love debate because they are never about his right to exist. It’s a party game for him, not an existential question.

Read the following section from The New Statesman interview and see how easy it is to imagine the words coming out of Rusbridger’s mouth appearing beneath the byline of Rod Liddle or Melanie Phillips:

There are benefits, he said, to having those who have been marginalised “rather aggressively coming in [to an institution] and making their voice felt”, whether at Oxford or the Guardian; he is delighted the paper’s staff is more diverse than ever.

He thinks new voices develop “better-tuned ears”, but starts to “lose sympathy” when people say… “‘my identity trumps everything’ or ‘you can’t understand because you didn’t live my experience’.” In reality, “there’s a thing called rationality and argument which is also valid”.

It is an argument so squalid, empty and over-deployed that it could be found on the bottom of a piss-drenched phonebox beside a used condom and a pile of empty nos canisters. As much as any right-wing talking head, Rusbridger sees himself as rational and lines up the strawmen to knock down in defence of that position. Mill, who Rusbridger believes no one reads ‘these days’, said in his 1867 Inaugural Address at St Andrew's, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Rusbridger who spent so many years at The Guardian believing he was doing good and whose paper often did is going further than simply looking on and doing nothing; he is advancing the same line that young people don’t value or understand free speech as the right. He is offering the same Conservative Party that he battled over Prevent succour in its war on higher education. His solidarity is with his generation over the ones that have come after it rather than with even a notional idea of “the Left”.

Lambert’s New Statesman piece concludes:

Most problematically for the left, [Rusbridger says] Johnson is “spending like Keynes would, and that presents a huge problem”. Rusbridger did not need to elaborate. The political gulf is clear: the right is united behind a popular leader while the left is riven, seemingly more concerned with culling debate than building a broad church fit for power.

It’s the narrowness of the British media writ large, an argument that would fit neatly (and often does) in the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph or The Times essayed by the former editor of The Guardian in The New Statesman. I’ve written before that arguments for freedom of speech in the British press are often actually demands for freedom of right-wing speech. That’s not the case with Rusbridger. In fact, it’s even more depressing: A man who still believes he’s making left-wing arguments is parroting the right’s favourite lines.


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1

Defined here as someone who gets paid disproportionately well for saying, “Well, I reckon…” and stroking their chin until the skin is almost worn away

2

Thanks to Politics of NV on Twitter for surfacing this link.