Coded warning of chilling witch-hunt
PUBLISHED: 07:00 03 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:15 06 November 2017
Chris Heaton-Harris' clumsy if sinister attempt to find out about the teaching of Brexit at universities was almost universally condemned. Almost. As LIZ GERARD reports, for some of Fleet Street it was a perfect opportunity to send a message - dissent will not be tolerated
Business leaders, bank chiefs, lawyers, luvvies, the BBC, scientists, diplomats, civil servants, MPs, peers, cabinet ministers, former prime ministers, ‘Guyana-born’ financiers and now university lecturers.
The list of unpatriotic saboteurs, traitors, and enemies of the people just keeps growing. It’s extraordinary that these Remoaners seem incapable of cottoning on to the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not speak against Brexit.
Last week government whip Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to vice-chancellors seeking the names of lecturers and details of what they were teaching about Brexit. Of course, there is never anything sinister about someone in authority seeking a list of academics’ names, he insisted; he just wanted the information ‘for research’, ‘for a book’, we were told.
Mike Galsworthy, formerly of UCL and now founding head of Scientists for EU, doubted there’d be much readership for a book of 400 lecturers’ names. In his eyes, there could be only one reason for the letter: to stir up the tabloids.
Like Pavlov’s troll, the Daily Mail immediately obliged with ‘a troubling insight’ into ‘Our remainer universities’ in which ‘the extent of anti-Brexit bias was laid bare’.
Terrible things were going on. The master of a Cambridge college spoke against Brexit during a graduation ceremony. People put up posters about an anti-Brexit march. Most damning of all, a poll showed that eight out of ten academics voted Remain. This last fact was so shocking that it was repeated three times. Just imagine! These academics had the temerity to defy the will of the people before the people had even decided what their will was.
Readers were asked “Have you – or do you know anyone who has – experienced anti-Brexit bias at university?”
Echoes of McCarthyism? Nonsense! That question is nothing like Joe McCarthy’s “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”
These are quite different witch-hunts. McCarthy saw Reds under every bed, the Brexit Press see Remoaners round every bend. McCarthy’s Committee on UnAmerican Activities focused on Hollywood; the Brexit Press is far less discriminatory. It’ll have a go at luvvies – including Emma ‘Shove it in your cakehole’ Thompson and Harry ‘Moan Direction’ Styles – if the mood takes, but there are plenty more targets to aim at.
McCarthy attacked suspect servicemen; the Brexit Press makes a point of defending ‘Our Boys’. See! They are completely different. And the biggest difference of all is that while American newspapers put a stop to McCarthy’s activities, British newspapers started the Brexit witch-hunt.
They’ve had help along the way. While the Mail was railing about universities, Jacob Rees-Mogg was denouncing the Governor of the Bank of England as an ‘enemy of Brexit’ and the BBC as ‘the Brexit Bashing Corporation’. Quite so, chorused the Sun, Mail and Express.
Mark Carney had been ‘doing Cameron and Osborne’s bidding’ on Project Fear during the referendum campaign, wrote Express columnist Tim Newark. It had been ‘vengeful malevolence’ to cut interest rates weeks after the vote, increasing the plunge in the value of sterling ‘purely to justify his own predictions of its fall’. This in the paper that splashed on that rate cut last August under the heading ‘Britain will succeed after EU exit…Rate cut to boost economy’.
Here are the opening paragraphs of that story: “Britain will prosper out of the EU, the Bank of England confirmed yesterday. It slashed interest rates to a record low of 0.25 per cent, handing millions of mortgage holders an immediate saving on their monthly bills. Governor Mark Carney said Britain could ‘handle’ Brexit and insisted there was no danger of a recession. Referring to the outcome of the referendum, he spoke of the resilience of the British people and said the economy would continue to grow.”
As for the BBC? “Brexit hating Beeb IS biased” screamed the Sun last month. It had conducted an investigation and found that Auntie’s top four political shows had four times as many Remain-supporting guests as Brexit fans. MPs were furious, demanding action from Ofcom.
There was worse to come the next day when columnist Miles Goslett asked for details of people invited to the Proms as guests of the corporation (yes, another request for another list of names).
“Guess what?” he wrote. “The vast majority of those treated to free drinks and a night at the Royal Albert Hall – courtesy of TV licence payers – were vocal defenders of the EU and prominent critics of Brexit.”
They included the aforementioned Carney, Guardian editor Kath Viner, Sadiq Khan, Nick Clegg, David Attenborough (heaven forfend! They’d never have invited him if he hadn’t been a Remoaner) – and Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Philip Hammond. Excuse me? Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Philip Hammond? Oh yes. They all voted Remain. So they count.
And might they, by any chance, have also appeared on political shows? Where they would count as ‘Remain-supporting guests’? Those dastardly Remoaners are everywhere. Even in Downing Street. Even the woman all three Brexit tabs went wild to keep in place.
Are you or have you ever been a Remain supporter? You may think you’ve been rehabilitated. You may think you’re obeying the will of the people, but in a little corner of the Sun, you’ll be tarred forever.
Back at the Mail, ‘Yet more evidence of anti-Brexit bias’ in our Remainer universities (part ii) duly emerged. We learnt that some other senior figures had spoken against Brexit on graduation day.
A 70-year-old man was ‘disgusted’ by such a speech when his daughter collected her degree from Bath. Her view is not recorded. A 55-year-old woman wanted to boo when the same thing happened at UCL. Professors had tweeted in favour of the EU, pamphlets had been distributed, someone had petitioned for a new referendum.
This is not the sort of behaviour one expects at universities – institutions where leaflets, pamphlets, fliers, posters, rallies and protest marches are unheard of. Tory MPs had demanded that universities do more to ‘present a factual account of Brexit’. What would be a factual account of Brexit?
No one defended the universities or the notion of free thought. Maybe the paper had not received any such response.
Except a number of people kindly tweeted their emails. Many were abusive or ironic, but there were plenty that mentioned critical thinking and the use of facts, research and experience to draw conclusions. There were even some citing examples of even-handed Brexit teaching. Matt Turner, editor of Evolve Politics, wrote: “I voted Brexit. I was on the panel of many debates on campus making a left-wing case for Leave. Not once did I find there to be any bias or conspiracy against leaving the European Union.” Oh, but he’s a leftie. In the bin with that one then.
Universities are not above criticism. If the Mail’s blast is an assault against free speech – and it is – the universities are also guilty with their ‘No Platforming’, ‘Prevent’, ‘Safe Space’ and ‘Trigger Warning’ initiatives.
Free speech is all about allowing those with unpalatable views to have their say, so that people with a different perspective can try to persuade them of the error of their ways through rational argument.
On the very day the Mail published its ‘Remainer universities’ splash, Camilla Turner was reporting in the Telegraph that the students’ union at King’s College London was employing ‘safe space marshals’ to police controversial events where people might be offended.
The marshals must be ready to take ‘immediate action’ if anyone expressed opinions that breached the safe space policy. “This could include derogatory comments about someone’s age, disability, marital or maternity or paternity status, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, trans status, socio-economic status, or ideology or culture.”
The Mail might have been expected to make more of this development, especially as the marshals were on duty for a Rees-Mogg appearance, but it merited only a blob par at the bottom of its Remainer follow-up page. There was plenty of campus-bashing elsewhere though: Cambridge students who wanted to change literature courses that ‘elevate white writers’; the ‘Christian expelled by university after quoting Bible in gay marriage debate’ – a decision upheld by the High Court.
The Mail has long been impatient with ‘leftie’ universities and their students. May’s failure to secure a general election landslide was the result not of inadequacies on her part, but of a ‘Youthquake’ caused by Corbyn’s promise to scrap tuition fees (offering young voters free education is a ‘bribe’, offering older voters cheaper electricity and lower inheritance taxes is not).
But is this antipathy wise? Think of all those nice middle-class readers who have just loaded up the Volvo to deliver their teenagers to uni. Think of the readers of the future. It’s hardly news that students and academics tend to be more left than right. It’s hardly news that they voted in such numbers to Remain. It’s hardly news that (like the Mail editor) universities receive EU funding. The Mail went on the attack, at Heaton-Harris’ behest, because it believes lecturers are delivering propaganda. Taking Chris Patten to task for questioning the whip’s letter, an editorial headlined ‘How Remoaners have hijacked academia’ said: “The Mail has no objection to acquainting students with Left-wing or pro-EU ideas. But if these are all they hear, doesn’t this subvert the whole purpose of a university? Instead of trying to silence an inquisitive MP, Lord Patten should do some serious thinking about enlightened education – which means presenting BOTH sides of an argument.”
Exactly. That’s what newspapers should do, too. Throughout the referendum and before, the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph produced editions that were indistinguishable from propaganda sheets. That was worrying enough, but the tabloids in particular have moved on to something even scarier. The attacks on the courts, the BBC and, now, the universities are part of a campaign of intimidation. They know that these institutions will carry on as they always have done; the hectoring is not aimed at them.
It is intended as a warning to any politician – especially Mrs May – who might be tempted to articulate the forbidden truth: that Brexit may not be such a good idea.
The Mail’s message last week was: “If we can go OTT with a four-page assault on unis, knowing that it won’t change anything, just imagine what we’d heap on you.”
Because it is terrified that MPs will eventually reinterpret that other whitetop headline and find their voice to declare: “We won’t be bullied on Brexit”.
Liz Gerard blogs at sub-scribe.co.uk