BBC makes second U-turn in a week over freedom of speech on campus

Photo courtesy of Flickr / wiredforlego under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence. Unmodified. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wiredforsound23/11186742126
Photo courtesy of Flickr / wiredforlego under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence. Unmodified. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wiredforsound23/11186742126

On 30 September the BBC spectacularly reversed its ruling over whether Naga Munchetty had broken its editorial guidelines in making comments about Donald Trump on BBC Breakfast. The BBC’s Director-General (one might say ‘Directionless-General’) Lord Hall personally stepped in to overturn the previous ruling. The whole episode proved an embarrassment for the BBC.

Whatever the merits of the BBC Executive Complaints Unit’s original decision, or of its subsequent reversal — and I am not going to discuss the merits of those decisions here — it was only the first of two spectacular U-turns by the BBC last week. The second was less noticed in the media.

“In the interview (with Justin Webb on the Today programme) Ms. Rosario-Sanchez spoke movingly about how she had received threats and bullying from gender activists at the university, after it was revealed that she was to chair a meeting on public policy in the rôle of gender.”

On Thursday 3rd October, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme included an interview by Justin Webb of Raquel Rosario-Sanchez, a Ph.D. student at the University of Bristol (you can hear it here, between 1º23’55” and 1º29’40”, for the next 23 days).

In the interview Ms. Rosario-Sanchez spoke movingly about how she had received threats and bullying from gender activists at the university, after it was revealed that she was to chair a meeting on public policy in the rôle of gender. One activist in particular, she said, set up an online campaign of bullying and harassment intended to silence her and give her no platform for discussing gender issues in public.

She also claimed that she had this intimidation to the university, but that they had taken no concrete action to protect her or to sanction those who were carrying it out.

The acknowledgement by the Radio 4 Today programme that academic freedom is under serious threat in the UK — and a discussion of the issue to be aired in this evening’s Moral Maze — represents a significant turnaround for the BBC.

“The acknowledgement by the Radio 4 Today programme that academic freedom is under serious threat in the UK represents a significant turnaround for the BBC.”

Last year in October the BBC website published an astonishing “Reality Check” article which claimed — based on Freedom of Information requests to UK universities — that freedom of speech on our campuses was alive and well. Problem? What problem?

As well as being possibly the biggest pile of nonsense I have ever read on the BBC website, the article has since gained a sort of notoriety. An article in the Times on June 30th this year, “Mob rule is crushing free speech on campus,” took a rather different view. The Times itself highlighted the situation in which Ms. Rosario-Sanchez found herself at the University of Bristol in an article on August 25th, “‘Bullying by transgender student could cost me my visa,’ says postgraduate.”

I am pleased that the BBC has finally come round to acknowledge that freedom of speech really is under serious threat in our universities. But why did the corporation bury its head for so long?

 

 

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