By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 10th January 2018
When people obsess over a trivial issue, it usually means they are avoiding a more important one. The intense focus on student politics by middle-aged journalists – columnists and leader writers at the Telegraph, Spectator, Times, Mail and Sun – suggests to me that there is something they would rather not see.
As it happens, I agree with them: the no-platforming of people whom students find offensive is often wrong (though not in the case of direct hate speech towards minorities or the incitement of violence). But I also believe that, on the scale of global importance, this issue ranks at about 12,000th. This is student politics, for God’s sake. Daft ideas and failed experiments are its raison d’etre.
Yet this middle-aged obsession is taken so seriously by a government that is otherwise slashing the state that it has set up a new public agency to police student follies. This is the body – the Office for Students – that caused such controversy by appointing one of the no-platform obsessives, Toby Young, to its board (he resigned on Tuesday). I’m not very interested in him; I’m more interested in why this issue commands such attention. What is it that these people would prefer not to see? Perhaps it is the far graver no-platforming that prevails across adult public life.
Even when the link with their own obsession is clear, journalists manage to ignore it. For example, the incoming vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University is a man whose views, if they belonged to a student, they would quickly condemn. In his current post as vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, he signed the following letter: “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”
Digging his hole deeper, he now claims that the phrase “recent abuses” refers not to the pro-independence protests at universities but to unrelated instances of hate speech. How can this meaning be deduced from the letter? Is a man who first rails against free speech, then engages in such sophistry, fit to serve in this role? Shouldn’t Jo Johnson, the education secretary who set up the new office, take an interest in the matter? Or is easier to punch down, assailing a handful of confused 18-year-olds?
Another resounding silence in most newspapers concerns the US government’s deletion from its websites of thousands of documents that mention climate breakdown. The guardians of free expression also seem unbothered by the US agriculture department’s instruction that the terms “climate change” or “greenhouse gases” should not be used in its publications, and by the federal government’s banning of the words “vulnerable”, “entitlement”, “diversity”, “transgender”, “foetus”, “evidence-based” and “science-based” from an agency’s budget reports. This, after all, is real censorship, not a feeble attempt by a few overzealous teenagers to prevent their peers from using trigger words. Could it be that our free speech crusaders quietly approve?
Lord Lawson gave a lecture last year, claiming that “the suppression of freedom of speech in the universities now is one of the great problems of our time”. It was sympathetically reported by the Telegraph. Somehow the paper forgot to mention that he served in the government which banned Sinn Fein and ten other organisations in Northern Ireland from being heard on television and radio broadcasts, regardless of what they were saying. This was not an occasional no-platforming, but full-on prohibition.
But perhaps the real discomfort, that journalists appear to go to such lengths to avoid, is the recognition that the worst no-platforming of all takes place within our industry. In the publications most obsessed with student silliness, there is no platform for socialism, no platform for environmentalism, no platform for those who might offend the interests of the proprietors. In the Telegraph, as its former chief political commentator Peter Oborne discovered, there is no platform for criticism of – or even embarrassing news about – some of its major advertisers.
In the Daily Mail, Dominic Sandbrook warned that universities “are becoming bubbles of received opinion, echo chambers in which the same lazy prejudices … reverberate unceasingly.” Yes, that’s the Daily Mail, describing other organisations. The newspaper has made its own contribution to free speech on campus, by calling on readers to report views with which it disagrees: “Have you – or do you know anyone – who has experienced anti-Brexit bias at university? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
A column in the Sun warns that “universities risk looking more like places of darkness, intolerance and ignorance”. This admonition comes from a paper that, during the EU referendum campaign, according to research at Cardiff University*, published 220 pro-Leave letters and 1 pro-Remain letter.
The newspapers that claim to be so incensed about no-platforming are not above seeking to deny people a platform. When the broadcaster Chris Packham spoke out against the shooting industry, both the Mail on Sunday and the Telegraph published articles that sought to have him sacked from the BBC. The BBC resisted this attempt, but, disciplined by both press and government, across much of its output it has unthinkingly succumbed. For example, while it broadcasts series such as Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets and Elizabeth & Philip: Love and Duty, it provides no documentary platform for those who seek to break the stranglehold of patrimonial wealth and power. Where’s the balance?
I’m not claiming that columnists and leader writers ask themselves how they can distract attention from their own industry. Quite the opposite in fact. Projection is something we do unconsciously, to avoid facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves. We should all seek to challenge ourselves unceasingly, in the forlorn hope of combating this tendency.
I believe that a healthy media organisation, like a healthy university, should admit a diversity of opinion. I want the other newspapers to keep publishing views with which I fiercely disagree. But they – and we – should also seek opposing views and publish them too, however uncomfortable this might be. Otherwise media organisations are vulnerable to the charge they level so freely at students: creating a safe space in which only the views they find congenial are heard. Yes, to use their unpleasant term, there are some snowflakes at university. But there’s a blizzard in the newspapers.
*Iñaki Garcia-Blanco and Lucy Bennett, September 2017. Voting with their heads and their hearts: The EU referendum through letters to the editor. Seminar: Future of Journalism: Journalism in a post-truth age, Cardiff.