National misinformation campaign engulfs Oxford

On Tuesday 9th May 2023, the Student Union’s Student Council passed a motion which resolved to cease all commercial and financial ties with the Oxford Union for 3 years. Due to the Union’s current commercial stall at the university freshers’ fair, some students concluded this would prevent them from attending and bringing in new membership fees next year.

This motion included no reference to the invitation of Kathleen Stock, the prominent gender-critical feminist considered by many to be transphobic, to the Oxford Union this term. Furthermore, Stock was not mentioned during the debate of the motion. Instead, the motion cited “long-standing concerns relating to alleged bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and data privacy breaches”. Complaints about the Union have been around for some time.

In the days following the motion’s passing, the Oxford Student and the Cherwell released articles on the event. Neither made any reference to Stock’s presence on the Union’s Trinity term card or calls for her to be de-platformed by members of the student body.

On Wednesday 10th May, the Times published an article on the SU motion. Although everything in this article was factually correct, it crucially conflated the passing of the motion with calls to de-platform Kathleen Stock. Headlined “Students sever ties with Oxford Union amid Kathleen Stock talk”, despite the fact that the two weren’t linked, the Times spent most of the article reporting on attempts to cancel Stock’s talk rather than on the SU motion.

It was at this point that discussion of the SU motion began to directly associate it with the opposition to Stock. The Telegraph advanced a narrative in which the SU was painted as an organisation aiming to suppress ‘crucial’ free speech at Oxford, with a front page article on 17th May declaring: “Free speech is at risk in trans row, Oxford dons tell students”.

This narrative was seen further in the Telegraph’s publishing in full of a letter from 40 Oxford academics which condemned “the decision of the Oxford University Student Union (Oxford SU) to sever its ties with the Oxford Union (the Union) after the latter’s refusal to rescind an invitation to the philosopher and gender-critical feminist Kathleen Stock”. This letter makes the mistake of attributing the reason for the SU motion to the refusal of the Union to cancel the invitation to Stock, despite this clearly not having been the case. Another Telegraph article, written by ex-Union President and former Conservative Party Special Adviser James Price, again directly linked the two, claiming that “in response to the crime of allowing a woman to discuss her ideas…the Union is threatened with losing its place at the annual ‘freshers fair’”.

This incorrect narrative was actively advantageous to the Oxford Union as it enabled them to rally support for their cause and conduct opposition to the potential financial difficulties imposed upon them by the SU. Further articles in the national press aided them in this mission.

Due to such a narrative, members of government, pressure groups, and free speech advocates all put pressure on both the SU and the central university to reverse the motion, defending free speech. It was even argued that the SU motion breached a recent government bill to regulate free speech at universities. This is not the case – as previously mentioned, the decision to end financial ties with the Union was due to concerns of harassment, bullying, and discrimination.

However, at this point the narrative had very firmly turned against the SU. The issue had reached the BBC and the Guardian, with their representation of events discussing both the opposition to Stock and the motion as linked. It was at this point that Pro-Vice-Chancellor Martin Williams, recognising the reputational damage the purported reports of de-platforming were causing the University and its Student’s Union, came to the ‘rescue’. It is the understanding of the Oxford Student that Williams suggested a potential solution: the University could adopt the position on this particular occasion that the Union was equivalent to a student society, as its members and leaders are mostly drawn from Oxford Students. This allowed the circumvention of the scope of motion.

This incorrect narrative was actively advantageous to the Oxford Union…

If the Union is a student society, then the motion passed by the SU cannot have been valid – as no university SU can cease financial and commercial ties with one of its student societies. In this way, the Union no longer has the immediate financial concerns caused by its inability to be present at next Michaelmas’ freshers’ fair.

To express this development Martin Williams sent a letter to the Telegraph. A Telegraph article was published on 18th May which presented Williams as a shining knight fighting on behalf of freedom of speech to intervene with the SU and prevent them from punishing the Union for inviting Stock. However, in order to present this image the Telegraph selectively quoted from Williams’ letter.

Having gained exclusive access to said letter the Oxford Student can reveal that the Telegraph grossly misrepresented its contents. The letter points out that the reporting on the issue had been inaccurate, and also clarified that Oxford University was not opposed to or suppressing free speech in any way. The fact that the Telegraph refrained from publishing this letter in full, but saw a need to fully publish the ill-informed letter from the 40 academics, is of interest. Other than an intention to push the narrative that trans rights advocates are trying to stop free speech (notably in line with the remark of Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson that the Tories needed to fight the next election on trans rights and other culture war issues), I can see no valid reason for publishing only one of the letters in full.

The national narrative and representation of both the SU motion and the opposition to the platforming of Stock has conflated the two in a way that has benefited the Oxford Union. Due to public pressure, the university has been forced to perceive them as a potential student society, meaning that a motion that could have severely damaged their finances was made void. Furthermore, they have received a positive boost in the national perception of their society – a no doubt welcomed change from the numerous articles reporting on scandals of nepotism, sexual harassment, and racism over the years.

This fiasco has taken form in the way we have seen due to two reasons. One, the Oxford Union and those associated with it have had a vested interest in distorting the truth so as to secure financial security and attention (which the Union thrives off of). Two, the Union’s desire to misrepresent the facts has lined up with a national agenda currently being pushed by right-wing politicians and the right-wing media to portray trans individuals and those that seek to fight for their rights as enemies of the people.

Make no mistake, this is being done to shift the political discussion away from the shambolic state of the economy, away from the mishandling of the country for the last 13 years, and onto culture clashes. The Conservatives know they cannot win the next election without resorting to such manipulative techniques, as do the media bosses who benefit from preventing a Labour government. The Union, who has contributed more to the echelons of the Conservative Party than potentially any other society, is no doubt only too happy to play the role that has fallen to it – especially as such a role may simultaneously save its financial bacon.

It seems that a pandora’s box of troubles for the Union has been opened.

By suggesting that the SU’s concerns over welfare are identical to an attack on free speech the Union may have won this battle – but this may prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Even though the Union labels itself an independent society on its website, it is seemingly reliant on the university’s noncommittal perception of it as a student society to enable it to attend next year’s freshers’ fair. Like other genuine student societies, the Union may have to give up its independent status to retain financial stability. Higher education industry specialist, Jim Dickinson (formally of the NUS) noted on Twitter that “it surely can’t be the case that the OU can make claim to being part of the uni for free speech purposes but separate from it for harassment purposes”. Were the Union forced to register with the Proctor’s office, the current opaque system in which misdeeds are covered up would be replaced with university oversight.

Additionally, the current majority of Union members are non-students. It is questionable if the University would allow a student society to be almost entirely made up of non-students – one student society ex-head informed me that the university restricts them from having more than 1/5 of their membership as external members and that they must individually be approved by the society’s committee. If the same applies to the Union as a student society, then its life membership model may be at risk.

Due to the public attention to the visit of Stock, the university no doubt felt forced to intervene on behalf of the Union. It is doubtful if they will feel a similar inclination in the future once the national media focus has departed. It seems that a pandora’s box of troubles for the Union has been opened. Mark Twain once remarked that “a lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots”. In this case he may have been correct – but now that the truth has its boots on, it’s about to start kicking.

Image credits: Dmitry Djouce via Flickr.

Image description: A photo of the Radcliffe Camera against a sunny, clouded sky.