War is peace, ignorance is strength, Gavin Williamson is competent: Why the media is supporting the government's free speech lies

They've got years of columns decrying imagined censorship to justify.

Gavin Williamson, Frank Spencer with a House of Cards boxset, is attempting to distract the world from a raging fire (the mounting crises in schools and universities, poor children under-supported and often under-fed, students stung by rent that continues to mount up while they have to stay away) by lighting his own little blaze:

“Ignore that flaming forest, I’ve just torched this artificial Christmas tree. Ooh, Betty, my baubles are singed!”

The newspapers and broadcast media never tire of examining a dead cat. It’s far easier to moderate debates between two angry talking heads than it is to unpick complex issues without an easy, binary answer. That’s why complex problems in schools and universities exacerbated by the pandemic are less appealing than a confected free speech crisis stoked by Williamson with a dodgy Clipper lighter and a pile of dirty old rags (in this case copies of The Times and Telegraph).

Columnists on the right have spent years ganching on about ‘censorship’ of ideas which they hold dear by students unions and ‘leftie’ academics, so they’re fully on board with Williamson’s plans for a ‘woke warden’ to sniff out unacceptably leftist ideas like saying racism is bad or that you’d rather someone who hates gay people, trans people, or Muslims doesn’t get an hour to espouse those views on stage at the educational establishment you attend.

In the policy paper accompanying his new ‘free speech’ proposals, Williamson —or someone who doesn’t use crayons to draft memos — writes:

“The rise of intolerance and ‘cancel culture’ on our campuses is one that directly affects individuals and their livelihoods. For every Ngole, Carl or Todd whose story is known, evidence suggests there are many more who have felt they had to keep silent, withheld research, or believe they have faced active discrimination in appointment or promotion because of views they have expressed.”

“Ngole” refers to the case of Felix Ngole, a mature student at the University of Sheffield who was expelled from his course in 2016 after other students complained about a Facebook post in which he said “God hates homosexuality” and accused gay people of committing “a wicked act”.

The Court of Appeal later ruled the expulsion illegal after Ngole brought a legal challenge backed by Christian Concern, an evangelical anti-LGBT campaign group. Existing law protected Ngole’s speech.

“Carl” is a reference to Dr Noah Carl, an academic who was removed from a research fellowship at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, after a letter signed by seven Cambridge professors and 700 other academics that argued:

“A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the relationship between race and ‘genetic intelligence’ leads us to the unambiguous conclusion that his research is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed.”

Carl was alleged to have used data selectively and combined it with unsound statistical methods to legitimise racist stereotypes. Clément Mouhot, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, who helped organise the letter of protest, said Carl’s work could be “legitimately described as pseudo-science”.

The researcher was not summarily fired from his position. St. Edmund’s conducted an investigation into the claims in which he was given and took several opportunities to respond to them. A second investigation undertaken by a retired court of appeal judge, Patrick Elias, found that “concerns about Dr Carl only came to light after the [college’s] recruitment process was concluded.”

While right-wing columnists could — and will — frame Carl’s dismissal as an act of censorship, it is, in fact, a clash of free speech rights and their beloved market at work. The academics who criticised Carl and raised their concerns publicly were exercising their free speech in the same way that the researcher was in presenting his work in the way he did. St. Edmund’s made a decision based on the merits (or otherwise) of his work and the feelings of its students and academic body. Free speech does not mean the right to speak without challenge or that you exist in a bubble protected from consequences of that speech.

Williamson’s final example — ‘Todd’ — refers to Professor Selina Todd, a Modern History professor at the University of Oxford, who was uninvited from an event organised by the Oxford International Women’s Festival after other speakers pulled out or threatened to pull out, accusing Todd of being transphobic for supporting Women’s Place UK, a group set up in 2017 to oppose changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

Professor Todd refutes the claim that she is transphobic as does Women’s Place UK. That incident occurred in March 2020 and followed reports in several papers in January 2020 claiming Professor Todd had to be escorted to lectures by security guards after email threats.

Unlike Ngoye and Carl, Professor Todd’s case and argument that she is having her free speech suppressed is a more live one. She told The Daily Mail yesterday:

“I have at my institution a very good freedom of debate policy but it completely conflicts with our diversity policies because lobby groups like Stonewall actually pressurise institutions to write policies that say you cannot have debate on certain issues with the alleged claim being that by people like me articulating my view that sex is biological, it's not assigned at birth, that I am doing literal harm to trans people in that case and that's just not right.”

The Times, which has an ongoing obsession with what it calls “the trans debate”, has written about Professor Todd sixteen times since 2018, not including reviews of her books. It raises her as an example again today in its leader column on Williamson’s proposals. It writes:

[There] are the attempts to no-platform, disinvite or silence by other means speakers whose views are considered objectionable by a section of the student body, however small a minority they may be. Those targeted by protests of this kind are highly diverse. They include extremists such as the historical writer and Holocaust denier David Irving and the far-right politician Nick Griffin, but also mainstream figures such as the feminist author Germaine Greer and the former home secretary Amber Rudd, who was banned from addressing a meeting at Oxford University last year. Such tactics are hardly a mark of intellectual maturity but they are not new. Speeches to students by Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph, for instance, in an earlier generation were frequently interrupted and disrupted by protests.

Such are undergraduate sensibilities. Mr Williamson might struggle to force students to abandon the misplaced rectitude but that is not to say the government is wrong to attempt to challenge insidious new orthodoxies. Indeed the second and more dangerous threat to the free exchange of ideas at universities is the spurious notion that offence is something that should not be given or taken by students, something institutions themselves too readily encourage.

… Universities should not be complicit in circumscribing the limits of acceptable speech on the whims of vocal minorities. No academic should lose their job and no student should face expulsion for giving voice to ideas that some might find uncomfortable or unfashionable. The exploration of such ideas, after all, is the very purpose of the academy: bad, unfounded or dangerous views or theory should be demolished by force of argument rather than by proscription or suppression.

Battles for rights and recognition through history have been undertaken by “small minorities” — the Suffragettes could be dismissed as a minority, as could the Civil Rights Movement in US when it began. And it’s ridiculous to act like the notion of ‘no-platforming’ speakers whom students find objectionable is new.

18 years ago, when I was in my second year of university, there were furious protests about the Cambridge Union’s decision to invite far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen to speak.

The student union, CUSU, had passed an equally furiously debated ‘no platform’ policy the previous year. In the run-up to Le Pen’s appearance, the Cambridge University Jewish Society called the invite “offensive to all minority students in Cambridge and a danger to student security.”

Newspapers including The Times and The Daily Telegraph eagerly encouraged turning the university system into a market. Today, several papers have pieces about students as ‘unhappy customers’ as Covid restrictions curtail their experience. Yet they are surprised that those customers loudly object to people they consider to be dangerous from speaking at their institutions.

None of the contemporary figures given as examples in The Times leader are silenced. All of them have considerable platforms to speak. It is just that they have encountered other people exercising their freedom of speech.

Unsurprisingly, The Daily Telegraph’s leader column also enthusiastically welcomes the Williamson ‘reforms’:

It has come to something when it is felt necessary to appoint a free-speech champion to ensure diverse opinions are heard in the groves of academe, where we are meant to seek for truth. Universities and colleges are supposed to be places where ideas are discussed and tested yet in recent years conformity has been pursued, with certain views deemed unacceptable. Academics and students expressing them have been ostracised.

… The Government has decided to legislate to hold back a tide that would otherwise overwhelm free expression. Universities will be legally required to promote free speech and the Office for Students will have the power to impose fines on those that don’t.

These provisions would also extend to student unions. It would even be possible for individuals to seek legal redress if they lose their jobs for expressing lawful opinions. The proposed free speech champion would be tasked with investigating complaints. It is sad that such measures are deemed necessary but ministers are right to act before matters become any worse.

As you would expect from a paper that acts as a pipe for untrammelled government propaganda, The Telegraph reproduces Williamson’s rhetoric and doesn’t question the premises he puts forward.

The same small number of alleged examples of censorship are used in every article and yet we are told there is “a tide that would otherwise overwhelm free expression.” And when The Telegraph talks about ensuring “diverse opinions are heard in the groves of academe” (groan), it means a diversity of right-wing opinions. When left-wing ideas are expressed they are castigated in the pages of The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and The Times. When Williamson himself specifically mentions decolonising the curriculum as an idea he opposes.

Woeful whiners like Dr Matthew Goodwin are given acres of newsprint to wail about their “fear of the woke hate mob” (almost entirely a construction of their owned fevered imaginations). Meanwhile, academics on the left and often academics of colour, like Professor Priyamvada Gopal, are monstered and libelled by right-wing papers who cannot stand when they exercise their free speech.

In November 2020, Professor Gopal received an apology and libel damages of £25,000 from The Daily Mail after it accused her of “attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war”. Still, just this week, The Mail was up in arms about a debate at Churchill college on its namesake, Winston Churchill, in which Professor Gopal and Professor Kehinde Andrews looked at the wartime leaders racist beliefs and actions.

It was grimly unsurprising that the Mail’s ‘fact box’ on the academics, mentioned the ‘controversy’ around Professor Gopal’s comments last year without including its own role in that incident:

Professor Gopal, who was born in India, sparked anger last summer after tweeting 'White Lives Don't Matter. As white lives'.

A petition titled 'Fire Cambridge Professor for Racism' was also launched on change.org demanding that Professor Gopal be fired by the university for the comment.

The university stood by her after she said the comments were 'very clearly speaking to a structure and ideology, not about people'. 

She said that she had been misunderstood, and that she was clearly not attacking white people.

Don’t miss the shrill sound of the dog whistle in this phrase (“…who was born in India…”) either.

British newspapers are overwhelming right-wing. The columnist class is also right-wing and adheres to a very narrow range of views. Right-wing academics are given space to scream they are silenced. Left-wing academics have their words distorted and decried in newspapers. Whose speech is under attack? Who lives in fear of being shamed, shunned, and abused?

Williamson’s plans are about doing the very opposite of what they claim. The government wants to entrench a right-wing position on history and society. Its aim is to bolster academics who share its worldview and terrify those that don’t.

The government knows that despite holding the territory of tabloids and broadsheets alike, along with the levers of state power, its political positions are not held by or appealing to most young people. That’s why it needs to control what is said and done on university campuses. This is Newspeak in action and the press are complicit in assuring us that actually, slavery is freedom.

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