Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

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Free Speech versus the New Repression, a Small Victory for Liberty, and Righting a Wrong from Long Ago

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By MARCUS STEAD

I read with interest an article on Peter Hitchens’s blog in which he details a recent visit to Liverpool to debate what he rightly describes as a non-existent ‘war on drugs’.

Peter Hitchens.jpg

Peter Hitchens

Mr Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist and a skilled, passionate debater, was invited to the University of Liverpool by Tom Willett of the Politics Society, but in accepting the invitation he would have been obliged to agree to the provisions in the university’s policy and code of practice regarding freedom of speech, and the Guild of Students’ (just a pretentious name for the students’ union) equality and diversity policy, which, evidently, put significant constraints on freedom of speech and stand in the way of rigorous, robust debate.

Undeterred, Willett, to his credit, risked his own money by hiring a private hall which was not part of the university. But when the caretaker failed to turn up, Willett and Hitchens decided to hold the meeting outdoors on an open hilltop area in Hope St, which links the city’s Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals. As the article suggests, it turned out to be a positive experience, with a more alert audience and sharper questioning than had the debate taken place in a stuffy room.

This brought back vivid memories of a time, nearly 15 years ago, when I tried, and regrettably failed, to get Mr Hitchens to debate a different issue at the same university, but was blocked on similar grounds to those Willett experienced.

It is important to put the story I am about to tell into some kind of context. The world has changed considerably in the 15 years since it happened. You are about to be taken back to a world where Anthony Blair was still at the height of his popularity, and almost all university lecturers and most students were still more-or-less in love with him (though NOT me). The Iraq War had not yet happened. Anyone seriously proposing that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry would have been considered eccentric.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not exist. Mobile phones were used only for calls and texts, which were expensive. Phone calls to family and friends back home were strictly rationed and conversations abrupt and to-the-point. Keeping in touch with friends from your home town, or even with those who had moved to different halls, required a degree of effort on both sides.

WhatsApp and Facetime were still many years away. The main means of free, instant communication was MSN Instant Messenger, and even that was blocked on university computers. The internet was far less developed. Broadband was still unavailable in many parts of the country, and even if you did have access to it, ONE Mb was the standard speed.

DVDs were increasingly common, though many people, myself included, still preferred to use videotape. Most people still listened to music via CDs or cassettes. Radio was listened to on FM, MW and LW (I am aware many teenagers will not even be familiar with these terms). I was considered quite ‘cutting edge’ when I bought a Freeview box for the TV in my bedroom, pretty soon after it launched at the end of October 2002.

Coffee culture did not exist. Gassy lagers and alcopops were the drinks of choice for students. The majority smoked cigarettes, a packet of which cost around half their price in 2017, and it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in pubs, bars and cafes.

At the University of Liverpool, the Sydney Jones Library (the main library for arts and humanities) was outdated, dingy and badly in need of investment. Most of the lecture halls and seminar rooms hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Some students did not pay tuition fees at all. None paid more than £3,000 per year. University itself was cheaper, and student expectations were lower than today. Some lecturers and tutors barely hid their view that teaching was an irritating but necessary distraction from the research work they’d rather be doing.

The students union (rather pretentiously called the Guild of Students), was easily the least impressive of any students’ union building I’ve ever been in. The meeting rooms all had paint peeling from the walls. The smell of damp was everywhere. It was stuck in a 1970s time warp, large sections of it lay semi-abandoned, the food was nothing to write home about, and the cloths on the pool tables were bald. The main hall was turned into a night club on Saturday and Monday nights. There were occasional nights of comedy, drama and concerts, but it was often a rather quiet building during the daytime, with two small bars, a tiny cafe, a shop selling newspapers and snacks, and not much else to see. There was never much sense of ‘community’ about the place.

Liverpool itself was also a very different place. It was still suffering a sort of hangover from the Derek Hatton years of the 1980s and the decline of the docks. The city was packed with remarkable and beautiful architecture, but it was dirty and unloved, with many splendid buildings boarded up and abandoned.

The legendary Cream nightclub had closed for good a few months before my arrival. The bars of Concert Square and a shabby club called ‘The Krazyhouse’ seemed to be the venues of choice for students. I noticed a very gradual revival in the city’s fortunes in the months leading up to my departure in the summer of 2005, but the main regeneration came about around the time of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, which saw the construction of Liverpool One shopping precinct, a large concert arena and a major revamping of the area around the Albert Dock.

Hope Street Liverpool.jpg

Hope St, Liverpool

I cannot say I can relate to Mr Hitchens’s experience of Hope St. In my three years there, it contained two theatres, the Philharmonic (where my graduation ceremony took place in 2005) and the more ‘alternative’ Everyman, which was looking outdated but contained a rather good underground bar.

There was a bar containing big screens showing sports which appealed to students, but there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of places to eat and drink around there, aside from the takeaway outlets on the adjacent streets leading towards the city centre. From memory, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms didn’t have the impressive façade of today, and it operated primarily as a hotel. It never occurred to me to go in there, but having seen pictures of the spectacular interior, I very much hope to enjoy a meal and a few beers in there some day.

The street lighting gave off a dim, orange glow and it was advisable to keep your wits about you if walking around there at night, particularly as you got closer to the Catholic cathedral and the area around Brownlow Hill, which had a reputation for prostitution and drug dealing.

I agree with Mr Hitchens that there is some interesting Georgian and Edwardian architecture in and around Hope St, especially at the end nearest to the Anglican cathedral, but a quick look on Google Maps proves beyond doubt that he would’ve been able to eat and drink far better than if my proposed debate had taken place 15 years ago, and I can’t say that holding a debate on drugs in the open air around the ‘Case History’ sculpture would’ve been particularly feasible or safe back then. There were probably worse places to be a student, but I strongly suspect those attending the university today have a far greater variety of things to see and do.

This context is important because, although 15 years may not feel like a long time in the grand scheme of things, for the students of today, the world would have felt like a very different place. In the story below, I cite several examples of people taking days, if not longer, to reply to emails. Back then, this was not unusual. It was not possible to access emails via your mobile phone. You required a computer with a wired internet connection to do so, and it was therefore quite normal for many days to pass between people checking their email accounts.

The story began on the morning of Monday 9 December 2002, when I, as a first year student of Politics and Communication Studies, having recently turned 19, attended a politics seminar under the tutelage of Chris Lenton, now a city councillor, and a prominent member of the Liberal Party, a small party founded in 1989 by members of the original Liberal Party opposed to its merger with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. The reformed Liberal Party, which is Eurosceptic, has never had much success nationally but has maintained a significant presence at local council level in Liverpool.

The seminar discussion somehow came around to Alan Duncan, who had ‘come out’ as homosexual some months earlier, and had made remarks about homosexuality being increasingly acceptable in the Conservative Party. In the previous day’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Hitchens had written an article with the headline, “I’m sorry Mr Duncan, if you’re gay you’re not a Tory.”

At that time, Mr Hitchens was still a supporter of the Conservative Party, albeit not a very enthusiastic one, and held the view that a person could not be a conservative if they were openly gay, and that comprehensive education had played its part in brainwashing a generation into accepting Mr Duncan’s standpoint. Hitchens’s view was that while he believed homosexuality should be legal, it was not moral, and that if Mr Duncan had kept his sexuality private, it would have been his own business, but by making it public, he could not legitimately call himself a conservative.

In the seminar, Lenton remarked that he did not think Mr Hitchens truly believed the things he wrote, and a number of the dozen-or-so students present nodded in agreement. I kept quiet – I had had a small number of dealings with Mr Hitchens via email in the previous few years, and did not doubt for one second that he absolutely believed the things he wrote.

As soon as the seminar ended, I headed straight for the IT room so I could email Mr Hitchens to tell him what happened. Two days later, he generously replied that he would be willing to come up to the university and debate the issues raised, under a fair chairman. His only requests were for somewhere clean and quiet to stay, and for his expenses to be paid.

Unlike Tom Willett, I did not have the backing of the Politics Society, of which I was not a member (I saw enough politics in my course and in my non-university related activities), so I was very much a ‘lone wolf’ in this venture.

I wasted no time in contacting Lenton, who responded by saying it would be a great idea to bring Mr Hitchens to the university, and suggested Cllr Steve Radford as an opponent, who is today the leader of the Liberal Party. I was delighted and proceeded to get the wheels in motion. However, the university was by now winding down for the Christmas break. Most of January would be taken up with examinations and ‘student life’ would not really resume its normal pace until late January or early February.

At some point soon after ‘student life’ resumed in 2003, I sussed that to make the debate happen, it would be a good idea to get support from the homosexual community at the university. The LGBT society (just the four letters in those days, or maybe even three – my records show it was called the ‘GLB’ society, though that may be an error on my part), had a small office in the Guild of Students.

I knocked on the LGBT office door with a copy of the newspaper article in my hand, and passed it over to one of the small number of people present, and can clearly remember saying, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “Are you as angry as I want you to be?” The young man replied ‘yes’, and all those present said they would support me in my bid to get Mr Hitchens to come to the university.

My email records show that the next significant activity came on 14 March, when Anne Fuell, the General Secretary of the Guild of Students agreed to help publicise the debate. I then emailed Mr Hitchens to see when he was available in late March or early April, with a view to holding it before the Easter holiday.

I am relying on email archives from that time to piece together the exact order in which events unfolded after this, so minor details in chronology may be incorrect. Incidentally, I find it interesting how little the process of composing and sending an email has changed in the last 20 years. The main innovation being that higher upload and download speeds mean it is far easier to send and open attachments than it was even 10 years ago.

We appear to have hit some sort of snag in late March with regards to whether Mr Hitchens’s views were compatible with the Guild of Students’s ‘no platform’ policy. On 4 April 2003, I received an email from Deborah Lowe, the Guild’s Welfare Officer, which read:

Hi Marcus
because this is such a controversial issue, I need to consult my executive
before i can say whther it goes aheda. i think it is a great oppurtunity
and personally feel it can only fuel LGb awareness and the camapign to
accept it rather than fuel Peter Hitchens views as they should have gone
out with the dark ages. i will get back to you as soon as I ahev spoken to
relevant people but I assure you you ahve my backing and I will do my
utmost to get everybody elses.
Debbie.

Five days later, I received another email from her, which read:

Hi Marcus
I took this issue to the executive of the guild on Monday and it was a much
debated topic. The decision of the executive was that we did not think it
was appropriate to give a man with such homophobic views a platform within
our building, that prides itself on equality. I hope that you understand
the position that we are in on this matter. Please keep us informed of
whether you are still planning to have him speak in Liverpool as we would
like the chance to attend and challenge his homophobic views.
Thanks for your time and for trying to orgainse this event, I hope you
understand why we cannot host the event.
Debbie.

I emailed Mr Hitchens immediately. This had become a matter of principle for both of us. The following day, he replied, suggesting that I take the matter to the student newspaper. I did so, pretty much straight away, though the university’s Easter holiday was now imminent and we would return towards the end of April for a few more weeks of teaching, followed by a period of examinations, after which the university would shut down until late September.

On 21 May 2003, I emailed Mr Hitchens to tell him that I had not yet received a reply from the paper’s editor after all these weeks. They could be excused for not replying during the Easter vacation, though this had ended a week or two earlier so they had ample time to respond. Mr Hitchens suggested I pay a personal visit to the editor, as an email can be easily ignored, and nobody would know whether it was indolence or rudeness.

I then came up against another obstacle when the student newspaper abruptly closed down. The publication was a joint effort between the city’s three universities – The University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University. The latter two lost confidence in the newspaper, causing it to collapse and its offices to close. The University of Liverpool announced plans to launch a new paper at the start of the new academic year in September 2003, but until then, there was little I could do.

The long summer break followed, and on 6 October 2003, I emailed the editor of the newly-launched student newspaper, who happened to be the very same Anne Fuell who was General Secretary of the Guild of Students in the previous academic year. I had a hunch that her appointment would not be good news for my quest to expose the actions of the student council. She responded by asking for my phone number so she could call me for more details. I provided my number but the phone call never came.

I went to visit her office in person some days later. Fuell claimed that she was coincidentally about to phone me when I visited, so we had the conversation about the story there and then. She seemed mildly embarrassed by my presence, but asked for some time to think as to how to proceed. On 27 October 2003, I received the following email from her:

 

HI Marcus,

Hope you had a fine weekend. Sorry to not get back to you sooner but as
i’m sure you can imagine it gets very hectic here in the newspaper
office.  Thank you for your correspondence.  After careful
consideration  i have decided to not follow up your lead for a story as
i feel it may negatively affect a number of our readers.

Regards,

Anne Fuell

Editor
Liverpool Student Newspaper

A few days later, I emailed Mr Hitchens for what would be the last time on this matter, to tell him of this development. He sent me a short reply, in which he said he did not know what else to do, before signing off by saying that this bodes ill for the future of British newspapers.

And that is pretty much the end of the story.

Fortunately for us all, Anne Fuell did not pursue a career in journalism. Her LinkedIn profile she now works in ‘business marketing’ for London and Partners, the Mayor of London’s official promotions company for the capital.

Deborah Lowe went on to work for the BBC in ‘development’, and is now head of development for Wild Blue Media.

What conclusions can we reach, and what historic can we learn from this story? First of all, that this is an early example of ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses. But who were the student council, and indeed the student newspaper trying to protect, and from what? The LGBT society was ready to welcome Mr Hitchens to the university to debate the issue. They did not stand in the way of the debate taking place. Others felt the need to protect them on their behalf. And did those running the student newspaper not understand that it was their duty to inform their readers of the stance the student council had taken?

I admit to being shocked at the time by this curtailment of free speech on campus. My Eurosceptic views were firmly established by the time of my arrival at university, and I was undoubtedly in a minority among the students in my belief that Britain should leave the European Union. But at no time did any professor or tutor try to prevent me from saying so or stop arguing my case.

Many students seemed to regard my anti-EU views as an eccentric curiosity. A tiny number chose not to mix with me outside classrooms and lecture theatres, but none tried to stop me from openly and freely expressing my opinions. That said, I do think there were occasions where I was marked down in essays and examinations for not conforming to the prevailing pro-EU, pro-Blair mindset of the university.

But not once did any student feel the need to escape to a ‘safe space’ because of anything I said, nor did any burst into tears and claim I had hurt their feelings. I wonder whether the same could be said if I was a Eurosceptic undergraduate student 15 years later?

If Mr Hitchens had called for homosexuals to be killed, or persecuted, then there would have been a case for him to be banned from speaking at the university. But these were not his views. He believed that homosexual acts were immoral, and that by openly declaring yourself as a homosexual, you could not be a Tory.

I should point out that I am certain Mr Hitchens would not offer to come and debate the issue today. He says he now regrets ever getting involved in the debate around gay ‘marriage’ and the rights and wrongs of homosexuality, now regarding it as a very small and largely irrelevant sideshow in the story of Britain’s decline. Within just a few years, he had withdrawn his support for the Conservative Party, rightly believing it to have been captured by Blairites and broadly accepting vast swathes of New Labour policies.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

I warmly congratulate Tom Willett on succeeding where I failed. I am glad Mr Hitchens enjoyed his visit to Liverpool, and yes, I share his view that it’s a pity more people do not go there. All too often, British people go to great lengths to see far away splendours such as the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt, while neglecting to spend a few hours on a train to visit the equally magnificent Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool or Lincoln Cathedral.

Had I been just a year or two older, I would have had the self-confidence, experience and tenacity to keep fighting. Faced with such a situation today, I am in no doubt that I would have done whatever it took to make the debate take place.

Within a year or two, I became aware of speakers being refused a platform at universities up and down the country for daring to believe that Britain should not be a member of the European Union, or that radical Islam was a major threat to our Judeo-Christian culture. In students unions, certain opinions are compulsory, and others are impossible to express. The sphere of acceptable opinion becomes more and more narrow with every year that passes, with unpleasant and inaccurate labels like ‘racist’, ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’ placed on dissenters.

Fifteen years on from my experience, we appear to have bred a generation of university students who all too often believe they have a right to be protected on campus, not just from violence and danger, but from opinions they personally don’t agree with. What will they be like when they enter the workplace, or worse still, the House of Commons? This should be of major concern for all those who cherish and value freedom of speech, thought and conscience.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2017 at 5:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized