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If academics can’t think freely, who can?

There is more than a hint of Lucky Jim to Professor David Coleman, as he poses for a photograph, tweed-jacketed, in his book-lined room at Oxford. He looks like a man who would rather enjoy stirring things up and goosing the pieties of the moment.

Somehow it is no great surprise to learn he acts as an adviser to the controversial think-tank MigrationWatch UK and has argued that “the net contribution by immigrants to average national income per head was equivalent to about a Mars bar a week.”

All of which has, unsurprisingly, enraged the Oxford branch of a charitable organisation called Student Action for Refugees, or Star, which exists to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and campaign on their behalf.

The raising of awareness in this case would be best served, the Star activists think, by trying to get Coleman, a professor of demography, sacked. They have sent a petition to the university authorities, demanding he should not be allowed to use his academic title when speaking for MigrationWatch UK and that, “in light of his well-known opinions”, his continued tenure as professor of demography at the university should be “considered”.

It is such an asinine step, so obviously an own goal in PR terms, that, at any other time in recent history, one would be justified in suspecting skulduggery from Star’s political opponents. It hardly takes the most brilliant student to see that trying to destroy the career of someone who disagrees with them was likely to backfire, publicising the very arguments about immigration which so annoy them. Someone at Star might also have realised, incidentally, that engaging in such an overtly political activity risks breaching the organisation’s charitable status.

But these are strange times. The Star case against Professor Coleman may not succeed in having him removed from his post but, in the longer term, it will have an effect.

Fear of reprisals, of the rage of students, is now a powerful influence on how academics write, speak and perhaps even think. The story of what happened to Coleman (and he is the third academic to have been accused for having unacceptable attitudes in the past eight months) will have a general chilling effect on the freedom in universities to research and write in the future.

Taking offence, that great contagion of the moment, already exerts a hold on what we see on TV and on the stage. It affects what books are published. But when it reaches universities, it is time to press the alarm bell. If those in academic life are not allowed to think outside certain defined, socially acceptable parameters for fear of losing their jobs, then who is?

It is an indication of a new kind of activism that an organisation which clearly has virtue and good intentions on its side resorts to an attempt to destroy an opponent’s livelihood, rather than address his arguments.

“The main point of the petition is to raise awareness of his views and affiliations amongst students,” Kieran Hutchinson Dean, one of the Star protesters, has said. “We do not expect anyone to agree, but think that it is an interesting and important debate to have.”

The argument is either utterly bogus or simply stupid: a debate in which one side wishes to silence the other is a contradiction in terms. Censorship, it is worth remembering, does not always involve a Ministry of Truth and the closing down of newspapers. A gentle, velvet version can be almost as effective, smothering free expression with threats and campaigns directed at anyone deemed guilty of inappropriateness.

The Star students may be young and idealistic but, like many before them they are using the plight of victims as an excuse to behave like bullies themselves. If they disagree with the views of an academic, they have endless opportunities to put their own opposing case. That is the way freedom of speech works.

Hands off our groovy granny

It is precisely 40 years since a single called “Granny Takes a Trip” was a huge chart success. Today, the world is a primmer place. When Patricia Tabram, aged 68, admitted easing her aches and pains with a few home-made hash cakes, the rozzers knew their duty. The pothead pensioner was sentenced to 250 hours’ community service.

Models can snort coke. Pop stars cheerfully light up spliffs on camera but, when a game old thing from Northumberland uses cannabis in the privacy of her own bungalow, the law moves in.

Surely this heroine of libertarianism and pensioner power deserves support. Her near-contemporaries the Rolling Stones, for example, share her enthusiasm for the healing effects of soft drugs and could easily set up a benefit concert.

* One of our most cherished national fantasies is the idea of the unknown author – a young mum, perhaps, or even a teenager – who writes a book and makes a fortune. One moment they are scribbling away, alone in the kitchen, the next publishers are offering huge advances, their picture is in the papers and Hollywood is on the phone. It is a story which feeds the dreams of would-be writers and fills places on creative writing courses.

A truer picture emerges this week, thanks to a survey of 25,000 writers, conducted by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. One in five authors manages to earn a living from his or her work. The typical wage of a professional author is a third less than the national average, and is declining in real terms. Men earn more than women.

The ALCS report should be left in publishers’ receptions and handed out at writing courses but, in life as in fiction, it is the romantic fantasy which makes the most seductive narrative.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.