Earlier this week I was asked whether I would go on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show to discuss freedom of speech and no platforming in universities. This comes on the back of giving evidence in December to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on the same topic. Sadly, I had to turn the BBC invitation down. I was returning to the UK from France that morning and didn’t have the right equipment or the time to participate down a Skype link.
One of the other contributors to the BBC programme was Linda Bellos – who gave evidence to the same committee hearing.
At the start of the hearing in Parliament we were asked to define “no platforming”. I gave (and stand by) the generally accepted definition – where there is an official policy not to invite particular individuals or members of particular groups to speak at events.
Currently the National Union of Students has just such a policy for members of six right-wing, racist or fascist groups – one of which no longer exists. The NUS’s LGBT section has adopted the same policy in respect of Julie Bindel because of transphobic comments she has made and seems to continue to hold to. And that’s it as far as university or student union policies are concerned. Individual student groups may have other specific policies which would apply to the times and spaces where they meet, but individuals affected by them are not prevented from appearing at other venues at the same time, or the same venue at other times.
Most groups will operate informal policies which have the effect of no platforming in specific circumstances. In Parliament I gave the example that Chippenham Liberal Democrats would, most probably, decide not to invite Nigel Farage to address us should we meet in Chippenham Town Hall (the Neeld Hall for those in the know), but that is not the same as saying that Nigel Farage should never speak in the Neeld Hall*. But, as far as I’m aware, Chippenham Liberal Democrats have no formal policy not to invite Mr Farage. And I would imagine that any Chippenham branch of UKIP, if such a thing still exists, would not consider inviting me to speak at one of their meetings. It’s a matter of practice and expediency rather than of policy.
But it appears that others have different definitions of no platforming.
Linda Bellos was invited to speak at an event in Kings College London, but then had her invitation withdrawn following protests. Alexandra Tate (another witness at the same committee hearing and the president of the student group who invited Bellos) explained that the decision was taken because of the pressure of time rather than it being a formal policy decision. Bellos’ definition, apparently repeated on the Victoria Derbyshire programme I couldn’t be on, seems to extend to being disinvited. According to Bellos, once you’re invited to something, the organisers cannot change their minds, even if evidence comes to light which means they wouldn’t have invited you if they were originally aware of it.
As someone who sometimes gets invited to speak at things, I can understand how annoying it must be should such an invitation be withdrawn. As someone who invites people to speak at things, I try to be very careful to ensure that we aren’t going to have to reconsider.
But is Bellos really saying “once invited you cannot be disinvited”? If so, that puts a huge risk on the group inviting the individual, as the individual could attract all sorts of opprobrium before they finally appear, and there is nothing the group could do about it. Groups must have a level of autonomy over who they invite and whether (and when) they choose to rescind those invitations.
There’s a third definition emerging. On Boxing Day I made a formal complaint to the BBC about Nick Robinson’s assertion, when asking a question on the Today programme that morning, that Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer had been no platformed. Tatchell was also a witness at the above-mentioned committee hearing and stated that, under the definition I initially used, he had not been no platformed. Jane Fae (that’s the final committee witness!) referenced Greer giving her talk at Cardiff University after she had protested on the BBC about being no platformed.
This morning the BBC dismissed my complaint, essentially on the grounds that (a) it didn’t matter in the context of the question, and (b) that Tatchell and Greer were both “subject to pressure not to attend university events because of campaigns against them.” It’s also interesting, in passing, to note that the BBC essentially accepted that the question was inaccurate – while dismissing a complaint made on the grounds of accuracy – of which, undoubtedly, more later.
For the purposes of this piece, however, point (b) is the interesting one as it extends the definition of no platforming to an appearance at an event being the subject of protest, even if the event still takes place – the platform still granted. Not so much “no platforming” as “contested platforming”.
Students have always protested things. There’s a group of transphobic feminists who have taken to protesting outside events where trans issues are discussed. Under the BBC’s definition, those women are no platforming trans people. I remember protests against all sorts of people when I was at university in the early 80s, including Conservative cabinet ministers. And the President of the United States has, this morning, decided not to open the new US Embassy in London in an environment where it was very likely that there would be protests against his attendance – and these protests were discussed in Parliament. By the BBC’s definition, Donald J Trump has been no platformed and, quite likely, by MPs.
I think this is also an alarming extension as it positions protest as being against free speech. Protest, is of course, also an expression of free speech. To disallow protest places even more power (and hopefully responsibility) in the hands of event organisers. If, once someone has been invited, no one can protest, that’s a huge level of unopposed power of the kind you see in dictatorships.
I see no particular reason to move from my definition. I am always interested in other proposals, but the attempts to shift the definition onto the grounds I explain above are highly concerning with potentially massive consequences.
Groups must have the right to invite and not invite who they choose. Groups must have the ability to rescind any invitations they make. Individuals must have the right to choose to listen to speakers, not to listen to them or, if they deem it necessary, to protest against them. This applies whether the event is with students or with the general public.
That is not the same as saying that an individual should not face the consequences of things they say or stances they take. This is my biggest beef with the current “free speech” debate – in that the proponents of supposedly unrestrained free speech are actually campaigning for there to be no consequences for the things they say. That way lies anarchy. It may well be that protest and removal of invitations are precisely the consequences to be faced for various utterances.
We should not allow “no platforming” to be derailed in the same way that “free speech” is currently being conflated with a “demand to be listened to”, however offensive or inaccurate the views.
- When talking about speech, it’s interesting to note that the Neeld Hall is named after Joseph Neeld, who was the MP for Chippenham from 1830 until he died in 1856. In the 26 years he was Chippenham’s MP, he never spoke in Parliament once.