Worries about academic freedom

The London School of Economics is attempting today (April 14)  to get the BBC to pull a Panorama programme filmed under cover by a BBC reporter while a group of its students were in North Korea. The BBC is disputing certain facts with the LSE and currently refusing to pull the programme. The BBC reporter involved alleges that the visit was in any case, not organised as an official university trip, and that all the students involved were told twice that an undercover reporter was going to be present, and advised of the dangers. In any case, students studying at the LSE and visiting North Korea would have had to have been living in an underground bunker without wifi not to know of the risks. However, as more facts emerge, it does look as if there is a serious dispute about what the students all really knew and whether or not they consented.

Listening to a discussion about this on Radio 4 this morning, I was disappointed to hear the reporter being put the question of what the students’ parents knew about this and what they would think about it. Odd, given that the students are all legally adults, but it’s of some significance to the university’s attitude: the general move to treat academics and students as needing to be marshalled under a corporate leadership, as if they are not capable of acting as individuals. The reporter involved pointed out one staggering aspect of this case. North Korea is, he said, a Nazi state, the most repressive regime in the world, and yet, the LSE could not apparently see the irony of their demand for censorship. Given that, luckily, everyone returned safe from the trip, and putting aside as a different question the issue of consent to the presence of BBC reporters, I focus here on the call for censorship.

The LSE’s stance about pulling the programme does not surprise me at all. It’s typical of the attitude that has crept into universities over the last few decades, in yet another example of the change blindness which has weakened our defences against the erosion of academic integrity in this country. A lot of people don’t even notice how controlling and destructive of intellectual endeavour such an attitude is.

I recall clearly when I got my first lecturing post in 1982 a colleague explaining to me the principle of academic freedom – that one of the aspects of the job was that I could use my academic position as a platform from which to speak and to say anything at all, with complete freedom. That’s been forgotten in many quarters.

Pity, as I still have a treasured publication – a letter to The Times, signed Dr Paula Boddington, Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, 9 Woodland Road, Bristol BS 8 1TB, which by coincidence appeared just under one by Anne Widdicombe. We were both complaining, for different reasons, about Baroness Warnock’s welcoming of sex selection of embryos. I complained about her statement that it might be jolly useful for those with hereditary titles to make sure they would have a son to whom to pass on that title. I pointed out that a simple change in the law would obviate the need to muck about in labs with test tubes – a change in the law which in fact is due any minute now. (I also pointed out that it would also be possible to get rid of hereditary titles altogether.) This little letter cheers me up every time I read it.

In my personal experience, I have seen the erosion of the idea that academics can freely speak out as individuals occurring chiefly within research centres – is it perhaps a coincidence? For it’s here that the marriage of academia and finance is at its closest, very often – with the need continually to attract funds. The encouragement for universities to learn more from business, emphasised as we all know by She Who Must Not Be Named, (sorry to be so childish, but it’s been a bad week) seems to have extended in some quarters to a creeping notion of the necessity of adopting a corporate line. Working in a research centre in Cardiff, which was twinned with one in Lancaster, I recall being gobsmacked at a group meeting to be given express instructions: if a reporter wishes to speak to any of us, we were to refuse. We were to contact an administrator in Lancaster (who of course, might not even be in work at the time) and pass the matter on to her. She would then decide who in the centre was the most suitable to speak on that particular matter.

Not long after that, Reuters rang me whilst I was in Sainsbury’s. It was about four o’clock. They needed something by five thirty. Did I say, ‘ooh, sorry, Reuters, I’m too much of a dimwit to be able to do anything like make clear that my statement is a personal opinion and not an official line from the academic centre where I work two days a week, I’ll ring someone in Lancaster who’s probably gone home already and she’ll get back to you once she’s checked with her boss?’ Of course not. I shouted down the phone still standing in the aisles.

Whilst working at another centre I once wrote a letter to the manager of a hospice about a matter which I believed, and still believe, to be one of some public urgency and of concern for the welfare of their patients, and patients’ families. I worked at a centre for medical ethics, so sent it on centre notepaper, as I’d done the letter to The Times all those years ago. It was in any case, of direct relevance to the work of the centre. What I had not noticed sufficiently clearly however was that the headed paper contained a line with the name of the centre director, and the manager of the hospice replied direct to him. He summoned me for an urgent meeting. Just to remind you, I was alerting the manager of the hospice of a matter which I strongly believed was likely to be a source of distress to dying patients. I was given a resounding ticking off, even though my letter did  not indicate in any way that I was speaking for my centre, and even though my letter was concerned mostly to alert the manager to something she might not have been aware of and which  she might think was not in the interests of the hospice and of some of its patients: that there was a video posted on Youtube, and expressly described as pornographic, filming a sexually explicit calendar (including S & M) which had the hospice logo all over it. On no account, I was told, was I to use the centre letterhead again. Irony of ironies – I was banned from using the letterhead and credentials of a centre where I was employed as a researcher, for pointing out that a group of self-styled pornographers were using the logo of a hospice, and simply asking the manager if she were aware of this.

I was so taken aback that the head of centre objected, that I ran this past another academic, who opined that the head of centre was within his rights to do this. That is, the fundamental notion of academic freedom – that as an academic, one may speak as an individual whilst explicitly using one’s academic position and institutional backing – had slipped away from the party without anyone even noticing it had left.

I recently had occasion to reflect on these cases when appointed to a Department of Health Scientific Advisory Committee. All they required of us is that whenever we speak to the media, or publish, we make clear that we are speaking personally and not as representatives of the Committee – unless of course, we are. We were actually treated like adults. A refreshing change.

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