Within 24 hours of its launch on 13 June, some of the advertisers on GB News began pulling their ads. The Swedish cider brand Kopparberg was first, followed by a dozen others, including Ikea, Vodafone and the Open University. None said it was boycotting the channel, although this is the way their actions were described both by some supporters and by the right-wing press. The companies explained they were merely ‘pausing’ their ads – which had been bought by algorithms – while making a standard industry assessment: would the new channel, as the spokesperson from Nivea put it, ‘reflect the values we hold as a company’? According to Julian Knight, the Conservative chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, this was an example of ‘the worst type of cancel culture’.
On the Tuesday after England’s defeat at Euro 2020, the GB News presenter Guto Harri ‘took the knee’ live on air. He explained that while he had never been a staunch opponent of the gesture, he had wondered whether it was really necessary for the England players to do it before each match. The ‘hideously ugly’ racist abuse directed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after their misses in the penalty shootout convinced him otherwise. ‘I may have underestimated how close to the surface the racism still is,’ he said, before getting off the sofa and onto one knee. He delivered the rest of his monologue from the floor. ‘I actually now get it. So much so that I think, you know, we should all take the knee; why not take the knee now and just say, it’s a gesture but it’s an important gesture … Racism has no place in modern football and no place in modern Britain.’
Harri, who says he discussed what he was going to do with the channel’s senior editorial team, must have known it would be controversial. GB News was founded as an ‘anti-woke’ alternative to the major broadcasters; its other presenters took a position more popular with viewers by criticising the gesture as the sort of nonsense they shouldn’t have to put up with. Perhaps Harri felt his job was safe because GB News claimed to be committed to free speech.
If so, he was mistaken. After a barrage of tweets from viewers demanding his sacking and threatening to boycott the channel, GB News’s Wednesday lunchtime and late afternoon shows recorded ‘no measurable audience’. Harri was defended by some colleagues – Neil Oliver reminded viewers that free speech is ‘the ethos of the channel’ – but it made little difference. By Thursday evening GB News bosses had announced on Twitter that taking the knee was ‘an unacceptable breach of our standards’. By Friday lunchtime, the Guardian was reporting that Harri had been suspended. Two days later, Nigel Farage, who hosts the GB News Sunday show The Political Correction, announced that he had been transferred to a primetime weeknight slot. ‘I will not be taking the knee for anyone,’ he said. On the opening night, Farage referred to Harri as ‘a part-time presenter who made a political gesture that wouldn’t have been allowed on any broadcaster in the UK’, invoking the media from whose stifling practices GB News is supposed to be a departure. Harri quit the same day.
Politicians and pundits on the right often claim to object in principle to boycotts and bans and anything that might get in the way of people saying what they want. The most common culprits are ‘cancel culture’ and institutions, including universities and much of the media, which in their view are not maximally committed to open debate. The GB News episode shows the flimsiness of this bit of conservative self-fashioning. Andrew Neil, the chairman of GB News, warned the companies that had paused their advertising: ‘This boycott business can play both ways … we can muster millions of supporters … Not a good idea to be on the wrong end of them.’ Boycotting businesses and suspending presenters to maintain their ‘anti-woke’ credentials might drive GB News’s viewing figures, but can hardly be justified as part of a free speech agenda.
Harri may have been forced out of his job, but his action was far from radical. His support for taking the knee depends on a minimal view of what that action means. Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, insisted on Radio 4 that the players were ‘saying no to racism … they are not saying defund the police.’ Harri promised viewers that ‘whatever nerdy academics tell you about Black Lives Matter associations, taking the knee is now a simple, bold statement that you reject racism.’ (He has been keen to advertise his views on the ‘destructive and divisive policies of the Black Lives Matter movement’.) In both cases the implication is that taking the knee is only permissible as ‘free speech’ because it does not entail any material change. Those who see it as a threat to the status quo are quick to oppose it. Baker was concerned about its link to a broader project of social transformation, which the Tories must resist at every turn: ‘Some of my black Conservative colleagues see critical race theory as an existential threat to their children’s future.’ He was borrowing a trope from the US, where Republican legislators have responded to the Black Lives Matter uprising by banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools. It seems unlikely that the majority of people in Britain and the US who oppose critical race theory – a broad methodology that treats race and racism as structural phenomena – fully understand what it is. But no matter: they know enough to want it out of schools and off TV.
How do those on the right square their condemnation of the England players with their declared commitment to protecting free speech in universities and the media? The tension here is logical, but not political. During a debate on ‘racist abuse on social media’ in the House of Commons the day after Harri took the knee, Victoria Atkins, standing in for Priti Patel, defended the government’s record on anti-racism and insisted on its support for the English football team. Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, rejected this as the ‘usual Tory platitudes’, quoting Boris Johnson’s long record of racist remarks and the charge by the England footballer Tyrone Mings that the government had given ‘the green light to racism’ only to feign outrage when faced with the consequences. The feigning continued. ‘I do not genuinely think the Honourable Lady is accusing either the prime minister of this country or, indeed, the home secretary of racism,’ Atkins said. ‘That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make.’ Responding to a CEO who said his company wouldn’t advertise on GB News until it was satisfied that the channel’s coverage was ‘balanced’, Andrew Neil said: ‘I resent even the thought that a channel of which I was chairman would peddle hate. You should know better.’
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will make it a legally enforceable duty for universities and student unions to ‘secure freedom of speech within the law’ for students, staff and ‘visiting speakers’. The use of university premises can’t be denied to ‘any individual or body’ because of their ‘ideas, beliefs or views’. As well as introducing just the kind of punitive regulation and red tape the Tories claim to dislike, the Bill creates a ‘free speech director’ and gives the OFS the power to fine universities and student unions. It doesn’t specify whether this is simply to protect the small number of speakers each year whose invitations are rescinded (six out of almost ten thousand last year) or whether it provides grounds for complaint if an individual isn’t invited to speak, or if a proposal for a particular speaker isn’t taken up. Can an earth sciences department decide not to invite a climate change denier to speak? ‘I hope it is just a first step actually,’ David Davis said, ‘in a programme to bring free speech back to Britain.’
Many of us who work in universities are familiar with these arguments. We are told that the greatest threat to speaking freely is radical left culture warriors who have the power to halt promotions and end careers. Such descriptions are hard to square with a reality in which senior administrators are paid six-figure salaries while stagnant wages, casual contracts and depleted pensions make academic careers increasingly inaccessible to those without private means. The Oxford vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, recently took the unprecedented decision, apparently under government pressure, to criticise a student group after it cancelled an invitation to Amber Rudd because of her role in the Windrush scandal. Yet when the government condemned critical race theory – an area of research for Oxford academics and students – she chose to stay silent. The University of Toronto has been censured for allegedly succumbing to donor pressure and retracting the appointment of Valentina Azarova as the director of its international human rights programme because of her work on Palestine. A Guardian investigation found that some students and staff who made complaints about racism at their universities themselves came ‘under attack, with the university closing ranks to protect senior white staff and institutional reputation’.
Many of my colleagues hold views well to the right of my own. So do many of my students. PPE, the degree I teach and which Guto Harri studied, often attracts young people who go on to work in finance, consultancy, private enterprise and politics. If we are doing anything beyond teaching these students, it isn’t radicalising them but – for want of a better word – ‘credentialising’ them. That doesn’t mean the university is a politically egalitarian space. Conservatives might risk the ire of social media, but they don’t have to fear an appearance in the Daily Mail (the UK newspaper with the largest global audience). Academics who take to Twitter to announce the end of free speech tend to be silent about cases such as those of Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi, who was reportedly fired on account of his criticism of ‘racist donors’. Some argue they’re concerned for conservative students who feel under pressure to tell their professors what they think we want to hear. Setting aside the matter of students trying to figure out what their teachers think – a dynamic that cuts across political allegiance – it’s more often the scaremongering academics who appear to be playing up to their audience. Given the imperative we are under to demonstrate ‘impact’, it’s not surprising that this stance, however manufactured, can bring professional benefits. Perhaps I’m cynical. But Rhodes still stands.
Those who portray themselves as beleaguered defenders of academic freedom also enjoy less tangible benefits: it’s possible for them to configure good faith criticism – the substance of academic life – as ad hominem attack. A couple of years ago, when I was still in my probationary period (and so easier to fire), a senior academic used the n-word in a seminar I run. His paper was a defence of academic free speech and he did not agree that this word shouldn’t be said by white people (like him), so he said it, twice. I felt sick. In the questions, I asked him to reflect on the political implications of my reaction. Could we read it as an example of a certain kind of successful linguistic activism, whereby the use of a word by a particular group is not only thought to be unacceptable but is experienced with revulsion? If this were the case, I wondered, might it also be correct to say that while he should not (and would not) suffer any professional consequences for saying the word in the seminar, we could nonetheless see his choice as having its own political effects, weakening the emotional valence given to the word by the people it is meant to degrade? Might this be a reason to avoid saying it, even if, as a matter of academic freedom, we can? He could have answered my questions without conceding to my analysis. Instead he lost his temper. ‘You are trying to censor me!’ he bellowed. I later learned that he had contacted three senior members of my department to tell them I was responsible for the ‘worst seminar experience of his entire career’.