Friday, 16 March 2012

Sorry, Varsity - you can't silence me that easily

The University of Cambridge doesn’t seem to be very good at PR.

These last two weeks, we’ve seen the rather lenient slapping of the wrists of a paedophile Don, whilst at the same time seen a student sent down for two and a half years for taking part in a protest. It doesn’t sound quite right – and surely this is just another own goal in the list of own goals that our wonderful institution seems to score. And to single out a student seems bizarre at best – unless there is information that we haven’t yet been told.

Now don’t get me wrong – the protest was ludicrous, erring on dangerous. I fundamentally oppose any attempt to shut down an event when the sole reason for doing so is because someone with a differing view to one’s own is speaking. David Willetts, the universities Minister, has undoubtedly upset a good number of students and Fellows alike in his higher education ‘plans’ (education plans, we must admit, which were a natural conclusion to Higher Ambitions, the Mandelson-sponsored Labour predecessor). So, like any thinking person at the time, I was fairly appalled by the crass way that our so-called saviours, some of whom hailed from, Cambridge ‘Defend’ Education, attempted to destroy the idea of debate.
But the whole argument got a bit more convoluted yesterday when a petition against the suspension, partly fronted by CUSU, had as a major statement that ‘opposition to the government's higher education policies is a stated aim of a broad range of organisations’. In what way is this relevant to the petition? Rather, it gives implicit support to the protest, as a method of ‘opposition’. I do not support the government plans. I do not, however, see the protest as anything other than idiotic, misjudged, childish and useless. Therefore, I do not see this rustication as having anything to do with ideology – and nor, seemingly, does the university court, given their ruling on grounds of freedom of speech. Once again the extreme left, who doubtless had some shaping over the statement, have attempted to justify their actions by lumping an ideological viewpoint with the petition – and it will put people off signing it.

They didn’t help themselves, either, by C’D’E’s release of a tweet stating ‘this means war’. What on earth does that mean? Why are the extremists so imprudent that they can’t realise the best way to win an argument is to stick to the parameters in which that argument is framed. Students who protest do so in a country where it’s legal – and where we should defend that legal right. They also go to a university which prides itself on freedom of speech – something these fanatics prevented that day. How they manage to do their degrees at the same time, I have no idea – some of us have to work for ours. And for some in the protest movement, two and a half years away from studying won’t be much of a change, I might uncharitably suggest.

But taking it all together, and rising above the nonsense spouted by the self-confessed radicals, I still support, and have signed the petition against the sentence, on the sole grounds that it is disproportionate and will not help in the university’s furtherance of freedom of speech. The university should have every right to punish people who obstruct lectures, occupy their property and prevent freedom of speech – but should be proportionate about it.

But the extremists should be warned – your aggressive, all pervasive, flawed ideological posturing is unhelpful to your cause, and may one day just mean that you lose any empathy the rest of us would otherwise feel.


  1. Hi Charlie,

    As the editor, the comment section, while being largely free, will broadly reflect the views of the paper and, by extension, its editor. I've had a lot of complaints delivered personally to me over your article, and do not myself agree at all with your posturing of CDE as moronic extremists who are doing more to damage the university's reputation than anything else.

    This is why I've chosen to take the piece down; sorry to disappoint you. The paper has a good relationship with CDE, and obviously your piece goes absolutely against this. I'm sorry you were commissioned to write it; I wasn't aware of it being on the live site until this morning.

    My apologies again and all the best,


    1. CDE's justification for their protest was a new conception of free speech: one in which their shouting down was in the name of the 'marginalised' view and that as Willets spoke from a position of 'privilege', as adjudicated by CDE, the protestors were in fact furthering free speech.

      Given this, it is interesting that amongst students, it is in fact CDE who hold the privileged position, enjoying a 'good relationship' with the only serious paper in Cambridge.

      It can only be concluded that given CDE's freedom-loving hatred of hegemony and love of the dissident voice, they must have been delighted to see this piece in Varsity. What is it if not a piece breaking down their privileged position and proving that they, Varsity editors, and Varsity readers are all intelligent enough to read criticism and judge the protest for themselves?

      So, are we sure that these censorial complaints are truly from CDE members? In light of recent events on the topic of rape, I simply cannot imagine that self-proclaimed radicals would aim to silence those they disagree with.


    2. Charlie - did you ask Louise if you could make public what appears to be a piece of private correspondence?

    3. Are there laws against making public what appears to be a piece of private correspondence?

    4. No, but nor are there laws against interrupting a speaker at Cambridge University, as established in the criminal prosecution R v Martin Jahnke (2009). For what it's worth, though, I consider both actions to be extremely poor form.

  2. Hi Tom - no I didn't, and nor should I have to. It was not private - it was a request for information on censorship.

    There is no reason at all for me to have to ask - unless you think Varsity should be in control of my writing here too?

    Thank you.

  3. They're hardly extremists -- shouting and being a nuisance is pretty much par for the course when it comes to student activism -- but I agree that their protest was style over substance, unlikely to succeed, and rather self-defeating in preventing a debate.

    On the other hand, you should be less melodramatic about both the event itself and Varsity rejecting your piece because it doesn't align with their editorial slant -- it makes you look childish, and scores a fair measure of irony considering the substance of your complaint. Censorship usually describes state supression of speech or views; private bodies like newspapers, including Varsity, continue to have the right to choose who gets to write for them.

  4. Come, come, unknown. They commissioned, read and then published my article. They then got complaints from CDE who they have a so called good relationship with, so they deleted it. That is quite clearly an abrogation of their duty - and they claim that they are the height of independence and debate. I think not.

  5. Oh they're certainly being dicks, they're just not silencing or suppressing free speech or censoring or anything so high-minded. Technically they're doing all of the above, but the terms invoke such importance and principle that you'd better be reading something of staggering social worth to justify using them. This article makes a reasonable point, but its quashing can't hope to live up to the grandeur the terms suggest.

    In short: if some asshole kicks your sandcastle over, and you respond by complaining about the violation of your fundamental human rights, you look silly.

  6. I suppose the reason it's very poor form is that the whole incident is about free speech - and basically her response is - we've had compaints which might upset people who support us (incidentally the very people who stopped free speech in the first place) so i'm making the editorial decision to destroy your platform which we gave you, solely because they don't like it. It's all just a bit too dodge.

    I couldn't care less that Varsity don't want to publish my work - it's their decision - but they should make that decision once and not behave like stiflers of opinion and debate. My human rights are barely invoked here, come on.

  7. CDE had little or nothing to do with the piece being pulled. A recent email on our organising list (don't flatter yourself, your piece didn't merit a 'discussion') asking whether anyone had sent complaints, in fact received replies in the negative.

    Accept that a large number of people (including academics who for once felt compelled to read Varsity) noted you had penned a piece of histrionic, terribly-argued rubbish that for once (and hopefully only once) on a serious issue, and complained. A cursory glance at the tone of coverage and comment inside and outside Cambridge would have suggested that to be just as likely as another reds under the bed conspiracy. Perhaps you think CDE have the ear of the London Review of Books as well? Instead you've decided to launch yet another conspiracy theory about reds under the bed destroying your platform. Get over yourself.

    The editor decided to exercise her discretion and remove your article. Do you think everyone who has terribly-written comment about relatively (again, don't flatter yourself, this isn't the Cold War) important topics turned down, is seeing their platform being 'destroyed'?

  8. Waseem - the editor removed my article after publishing - and because of not wanting to ruin a good relationship with CDE.

    I have no quibble with CDE over the incident, nor am I blaming them. My article clearly argues that people should sign the petition, even if they disagree with the original mode of protest.

    Please don't be rude, too, it's not becoming. Just because you didn't like the content, it shouldn't mean you cannot see the wider situation.

  9. Also, it wasn't 'turned down', it was removed post publication and commissioning. I don't know how many times I have to state this obvious fact.

    The silly thing, of course, is that the article was trending as one of Varsity's most popular, pretty much summed up what the centre ground here think, and has now received far more publicity than it otherwise would have.

    I think the term is LOL.

    1. I would suggest getting people to complain about this horrific piece of censorship. While she may disagree, she needs to realise that as an editor she should not buckle over complaints about a slightly controversial article.

      Furthermore, your piece does not need to represent Varsity as a whole. If the Daily Mail wrote a genuinely great article, I wouldn't think they were an amazing paper...

      Also, CDE would be unlikely to fall out with Varsity over such an article, and if they did it would be a bit pathetic.