Almost every week I read something about “no-platforming”. Usually it is radical students who are keen on this; their fundamental mistake—and many senior academics have written eloquently about this, perhaps even on your website—is to assume that opinions with which they disagree are best dealt with by denying them opportunities to be heard.
‘When people who are well-informed resort to falsifying simple facts, and people employed to communicate resort to stubborn silence, there must be a strong reason’
to have passed; there is no “organogram”, and no system of accountability to stop such people from acting with corporate-style impunity. When I consulted the head of a Cambridge college, I was advised that the only thing to do was to write directly to the Vice-Chancellor. And so it was that, in mid-April,
And so, as even the anonymous monkeys had fallen silent, I turned to the organ-grinder: Paul Mylrea, the Director of the Communications Department, and thus the boss of those who had written to me so far. I sent him the entire string of emails, with a covering message which summarised the story, emphasising that “my main purpose in writing to you is to ask you to consider the procedures followed by your staff.” As I also pointed out, “a tactic of total silence is unpleasant when it is employed by any organisation, and above all when that organisation is responsible for ‘Communications’.” Mr Mylrea is a former Reuters journalist who, before coming to Cambridge, had been in charge of communications or media relations at Oxfam, Transport for London and the BBC; so I hoped that he at least would have a suitably responsible view of the role of a communications department, especially at a university, a place devoted to reasoned argument as well as the free flow of ideas. My hopes were not to be fulfilled.
After a week of stony silence from Mr Mylrea, I re-sent my message. The response which I then received from him had a somewhat snarling tone to it.
I am replying briefly as our office has been very clear in its previous replies . . . as we have stated, we were not a signatory to the “much-publicised letter sent to MPs by representatives of British universities” as Prof. Tombs stated. I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office, but the points we made are clear and I believe were answered [sic] fully in our previous correspondence. Patiently, I explained in my reply that I had queried three specific points, and had not received an answer on any of them; indeed, the only reply I had received was just a wooden repetition of what I was querying. I rehearsed, yet again, the elementary facts about the Russell Group, which were now being brazenly ignored by the Director of Communications himself. I also added: “I am sorry to see that you make no comment on the point I raised about the tactic of silence which I encountered, and the discourtesy this involves.” I concluded: You write that “I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office . . .”, as if to suggest that I sent messages repeating my questions merely because I did not “like” the replies I had received. This is not correct. I sent them because I had not received replies to the specific questions I had asked. Once again I requested proper answers. But the only response I got was a “get lost” message, with a final affirmation of falsehood and a final snarl:
I repeat that I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office, but the points we made are clear and I believe we answered fully all the lengthy points you have made again. I do not intend to enter into further correspondence on this issue.
In the old days, Cambridge had a constitutional set-up in which the head of a department in the administration was accountable to representatives of the University. Those days seem
I once again composed a summary of events and sent it off, with the complete sequence of e-mails. I drew the Vice-Chancellor’s attention to the tactics of misrepresentation, mechanical repetition and, above all, sheer silence, which I thought were beneath the standards of any respectable university. And now, in mid-September, sheer silence is all that I have received from the Vice-Chancellor himself, after 21 weeks.
Can I absolutely prove that the systematic obstruction I encountered was caused by the fact that my article had appeared on a pro-Brexit website, and consisted of criticising something that was hysterically anti-Brexit? No. But when people who are well-informed resort to falsifying simple facts, and people employed to communicate resort to stubborn silence, there must be a strong reason. And as anyone who works in a British university will know, strong hostility to Brexit has been, ever since June 2016, an almost unquestioned public doctrine. Soon after the referendum, when the University of Oxford had placed on its own website a series of pieces by Oxford academics denouncing the result, I asked whether they might consider commissioning one piece to put the opposite point of view, given that this was a major public issue on which the whole country had divided almost 50:50. The response I received was that they did not think it would be right, since—and no, I am not making this up—that might expose them to an accusation of “creating false balance”.
Postscript: the editor of Standpoint invited Paul Mylrea to reply to the points made in this article. Mr Mylrea did not reply, but a response was sent by his deputy, James Hardy, as follows:
The University of Cambridge’s EU website is not an open publishing platform and nor is it intended as a forum for debate. It is primarily a place for practical Brexit information and guidance for current staff and students. It contains an “analysis” section where active researchers at the University can showcase work, analysis and media appearances that relate to both Brexit and their area of study. The exceptions are transcripts of lectures by two former senior civil servants invited to Cambridge to speak specifically on their experiences working on Brexit preparations for the benefit of the research community. We do not exercise political judgments in deciding on the content of the site and indeed the EU pages carry analysis reflecting different standpoints. And so, yet again, the points I made are systematically ignored. My complaint to Mr Mylrea was not about being denied the right to publish on an “open publishing platform”. I was complaining about his department’s tactics of silence, delay, making obviously false statements, repeating the falsehoods when challenged, refusing to answer questions, and finally telling me that there was no need to reply because all my questions had been “fully” answered. As for Mr Hardy’s claim that they present only “analysis”: this term apparently covers crude opinion pieces, such as the one I mentioned (actually labelled “Opinion”) urging Remainers not to change their minds, as well as a tabloid-style article denouncing a no-deal Brexit in that well-known forum of academic analysis, the Metro free newspaper.
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