Ed McBarnet is the Publications Editor, and an undergraduate at Magdalen College
A storm has recently erupted on the Facebook page of my college’s JCR page, concerning its recent motion to fund Oxford Radical Forum. The event is playing host to such charming speakers as the infamous NUS president, Malia Bouattia, and several other controversial speakers.
How the initial motion ever passed is baffling in itself. ORF asked for funding from colleges and from OUSU before they had announced their line-up of speakers. Rather than dismissing this request out of hand on the grounds of its obvious lack of transparency, this was taken as an unmissable opportunity for institutional virtue signalling, and motions were passed by OUSU and the Magdalen and Somerville JCRs to fund the event.
As if the clue wasn’t already in the name (a look in a thesaurus under ‘radical’ gives ‘extremist’, ‘fanatical’, ‘militant’, and indeed ‘violent’) the organisers make the political dimension explicit, describing ORF as “a three-day event for the radical left” (my emphasis). We can argue until we are blue in the face over whether it is appropriate for JCRs and other student bodies to fund political organisations and events, but that debate is in this case a red herring. What has disappointed me most about the whole affair has been the response from some of those who first supported the initial motion, who are now trying to defend it on the grounds of encouraging an open public debate.
It should be obvious to anyone that the free speech argument does not hold in this case where institutional neutrality has been clearly and publically forfeited. This is not a question of no-platforming; it is of whether supposedly neutral student bodies should be supporting financially, and thereby endorsing, organisations who actively and explicitly promote a set of views which most people realise for the coded anti-Semitism that it is. All of us as Conservatives, I hope, support an open public debate on major, controversial political issues. But (apart from those of us who paid £3 to help consign it to oblivion) we don’t give money to the Labour Party.
If the democratic decision of OUSU and the Magdalen and Somerville JCRs was to support these speakers and their contemptible opnions, then so be it. But it is dishonest in the extreme for spokespersons of those organisations to defend that decision while at the same time attempting to distance themselves from the proposed speakers’ views.
Ms Malia Bouattia, to take one example, has in the past voiced concern at “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and memorably described Birmingham University as ‘a Zionist outpost’. After her election, an open letter signed by 57 university JSoc presidents drew attention to Ms Bouattia’s relationship with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), a group on whose Facebook page a charming 2013 post was published which read “Take your holocaust, roll it up nice tight [sic] then shove it up your (be creative)!”
There is not, nor should there be, anything illegal or punishably wrong in holding and voicing these views, nor in financially supporting those who make a trade of expressing them. But the people who voted for this should at the very least have the courage and integrity (if that is the right word) to admit that they are comfortable with those views, concede that their vote was a vote to support them, and accept the consequences that their institutional reputations are likely to suffer. Otherwise, they should back their expressions of remorse with action, and take steps for the money to be recovered or rescinded.