Ben Sullivan and student journalists

A quick break from Finals revision to jot a few thoughts about this piece, published last week on the website of The Cambridge Student newspaper. I’ve seen it shared a lot on social media but, unsurprisingly, I have a few problems with it.

Before that though, I do get where the author – Morwenna Jones – is coming from. To be accused of rape – one of the vilest crimes a human being can commit – is the sort of story student (and national) journalists should be careful to handle. We (I used to do a fair bit of student journalism myself) should always question whether we’ve framed and balanced stories in the right way.

Without a doubt, I think there is an argument to be had about what happens to all these news stories if and when Sullivan isn’t charged, or is charged and found not guilty*. The author is right to say that:

It’s hard to imagine him walking out of court and going straight into the research position he was hoping to with BP.  Instead, his life would be ruined.

That’s not right and, if and when the time comes, it’s worth considering how best to rehabilitate Sullivan. Now: I have a couple of problems – or rather, loaded questions – with respect to the piece. First, Jones writes:

[We should] revert back to focusing on the media and to ask ourselves, have we gone too far? Of course, reporting and identifying [alleged] criminals in the press can be an important stepping-stone in helping convictions.  But, how far are the motives that characterize this investigative journalism ethical?

Jones says here that reporting and identifying alleged crimes is important. Confusingly, in the next paragraph she questions whether such stories are “of any interest to the public”. If she does believe that reporting alleged crimes is important, then do the ‘ethics’ matter? Newspapers wish to sell newspapers, true, but if the story is reported accurately and legally what does it matter? Maybe it does matter, but Jones doesn’t say why. Second, Jones claims that the Sullivan coverage has been gratuitous:

The embarrassing and humiliating information that the Oxford student press had garnered about Union politics, Sullivan’s career prospects and work-experience, his home in Kensington, his early education, his involvement in debates on socialism, and absolutely everything and anything about him has been hurled headlong into the eyes of the world.

Ok. First off, his debates on socialism were uploaded by the Union to youtube – so it’s hardly surprising that they were discovered. Jones thinks that these and other details are “embarrassing and humiliating” and, along with Sullivan’s membership of the now-infamous ‘Banter Squadron’, amount to a “character assassination”.

Now I’ll concede that many of these details are irrelevant to the core details of the allegation. But as Jones puts it, “If it weren’t for the [rape] allegations, the [Banter Squadron] story may never have made national news and would’ve likely been forgotten more quickly.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that when a relative-unknown is put under the spotlight, biographical details will be included in the story – given that the ‘Banter Squadron’ story had been in the news just that week, I don’t think it’s unethical to have mentioned it. And this isn’t just the Daily Mail’s line; as Jones notes, the Independent, Huffington Post, and BBC ran similar stories.

So I think that though Jones raises issues that make us feel uncomfortable – as I noted at the start – she struggles to establish who in the press has behaved unethically here and how. She complains that such journalism is ‘gossip-driven’ and scoop-obsessional but can’t quite put a pin on what or who has been unethical. Instead Jones reminds us about the (indisputable) evils of News of the World. To put it kindly I don’t find this vague analogy informative or convincing.

When I saw the headline of this piece, I wanted to know specifically what the author considered the press – the student press in particular – should have done differently in covering the arrest. I’m open-minded about that question, but I don’t see that Jones has tried to answer it.

update (12.09.14): no charges were brought against Sullivan

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Did Michael Gove ever really leave the Oxford Union?

Only a former Oxford Union hack could in the same sentence describe a political opponent as both “charming, intelligent, eloquent” and “uncertain, irresolute, weak”.

The tactic, as George Eaton puts it, consists in flattering one’s opponents into submission before sticking the knife in.

It’s a classic ploy used by members of the Oxford Union, the prestigious Oxford University debating society of which Gove was once President, to ridicule an interlocutor whilst appearing sincere and dispassionate to the audience.

I’ve been an Oxford Union member for two years and have seen the trick pulled too many times to count. To seasoned observers it’s boring and patronising at best, and slimy and disingenuous at worst. But it works.

In weighing up Miliband’s credentials, Gove creates the impression of balance by listing the Labour leader’s positive as well as negative attributes. In fact he gives the impression of doing more than that: six positive adjectives – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous – against just three negative ones.

Of course Gove isn’t being fair at all. The compliments all allude to Miliband’s ‘Buddha-like qualities’ which, in the public eye, aren’t really qualities at all. Not against Cameron’s supposed strengths of certainty, resoluteness and strength which, Gove would have us believe, Miliband doesn’t possess.

But it’s not easy to spot the guise. Instead Gove’s apparent equanimity succeeds in depoliticising and legitimising the crushing conclusion that follows: that when asked “who governs Labour, his answer would appear to be, increasingly: the unions.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson, another former Union President, repeatedly pulls the same trick of patronising a rival – David Cameron – while outwardly appearing warm and friendly. Johnson is the only politician with the nerve, and status, to get away with calling the Prime Minister ‘Dave’, which Johnson – who never forfeiting the status afforded by being two years above Cameron at Eton and then Oxford – regularly does in public.

If Gove really is “the politest man in politics”, then he is also the least authentic. A little of veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s bad manners – accusing George Osborne of snorting cocaine (2005) and calling Jim Prior, then secretary of state for employment, the “minister of unemployment” (1980) – would help him recoup some much-needed authenticity.

Margaret Thatcher’s Death: Oxford reacts

I had just returned to Oxford for the start of Trinity term, a few days before in fact in order to do some groundwork setting up the new Cherwell.

After unpacking my stuff I was showing Bob, our super-friendly gardener who drove me down, around the Oxford Union. We were looking at the framed photographs – the one the Union covets most including  the Queen and Ronald Reagan – outside the Union bar.

I bumped into James Price, a chap in the year above who I know a little, who was reading something on his phone – looking, if he’ll forgive me for saying, a little feverish. Thatcher had just died.

It was pleasant – I won’t be so hyperbolic as to say ‘a privilege’ – to cover with Jon Epstein, a fantastically eccentric American abroad, Thatcher’s death from an Oxford University point of view. This was, after all, the place in which she first encountered the Establishment that, little more than three decades later, she would uproot and dominate.

I gave Bob a slightly rushed tour of the Union. We had time to look at some of the older committee photos, which were conspicuously absent of women. Despite being President of OUCA in 1946, Thatcher was barred from the Union by virtue of her gender. That finally changed in 1963.

I’m really proud of the feature we ran in the paper two weeks later. It was put together by Cherwell-ites Rosie, Lara and Helena with graphical assistance from Xin and Anna, then deputy editors. Unfortunately the Cherwell website doesn’t allow the sort of design tools that we’re able to employ in print, but here’s a photo of it here.

We tracked the changing role and experience of female undergraduates at Oxford since – and including – the time when Thatcher was at Somerville. For balance we included a comment piece that attacked the notion that Thatcher improved the position of women in society.

thatcher feature

Julian Assange at the Oxford Union

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Check me asking Julian Assange a question via video link.

The question I asked was deliberately a bit snarky. The Oxford Union was hosting an award ceremony by Sam Adams Associates, a group of whistleblowers and non-conformists that includes Annie Machon (who Chloe Cornish, lately of Brasenose, interviewed), the former MI5 officer.

The problem was that the award’s recipient, Tom Fingar, is no fan of Assange, who he has accused of “violat[ing] the law, personal obligations, and professional ethics.”  The question I asked was whether he had any warm words for Assange. He didn’t, only coldly wishing the Australian dissident “good luck”.

That makes Assange’s invite to address the ceremony a rather curious decision. Including the Q&A, Assange had the floor for some 40 minutes, totally overshadowing the award and its significance.

These are two links to Cherwell news articles (both with excellent video reports by Xin Fan) about Julian Assange’s talk at the Oxford Union, and the opposition expressed by some in the Oxford community. See the front page story in print here.

http://www.cherwell.org/news/world/2013/01/11/assange-invite-sparks-protest

http://www.cherwell.org/news/world/2013/01/24/union-opens-its-doors-to-assange?track_similar=14813

How To Lose Friends and Educate People

This is an interview with Toby Young, reproduced from Cherwell. Toby had a series of (pretty impressive) jobs in media as a young man, though he claims they often ended in him getting fired. This culminated in a stint at Vanity Fair in New York. He later wrote up his experiences in the bestselling How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. Today he is a political columnist and education campaigner, setting up West London Free School in September 2011. I cannot profess any pride in the puntastic title, it was dreamed up by the Editorial team.

Sat outside the Turl Street Kitchen I look up to see a mediocre William Hague lookalike approaching. It’s Toby, of course, and I find him transformed from the social liability ofHow to Lose Friends & Alienate People to the affable and focused founder of the West London Free School. The story is hilariously well told, documenting his attempt to break into the close-knit celebrity circles of the States, from his pilgrimage there in 1995 to his escape home five years later, tail flailing between his legs. On the face of it Toby has every reason to be fed up with life. A low point perhaps was when Simon Pegg, having just come from Run, Fatboy, Run, was told to ‘fatten up’ in order to play him in the film adaptation of How to Lose Friends.

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Yet Toby Young is now far from the hapless caricature he presents. The son of Michael Young, a Labour peer, his upbringing was political and firmly anti-establishment. Lord Young drafted Labour’s radical ’45 manifesto and was a leading protagonist on social reform, championing comprehensive education, a struggling system Michael Gove’s free school project threatens to dismantle. He ‘wasn’t very keen on meritocracy’ despite famously authoring the phrase that Tony Blair would come to espouse as New Labour’s public philosophy. In the past Toby has called his father a ‘blinkered ideologically hidebound socialist’ and he is largely critical of what his father stood for, if affectionate towards the man himself.

The inter-generational irony personifies the turbulent history of British state education. Despite persistently failing at state schools, Toby wasn’t entered into any of the local private schools which were surely within his parents’ means. Though never bitter, he clearly abhors the worst of the state system. ‘Having seen how bad state schools can be I was nervous about sending my own children to the local state school’. Isn’t this just a naked appeal to self-interest? It’s perhaps a less noble motivation than those which fired his father’s ‘utopian socialism’ a generation before. Would he be turning in his grave? ‘I think he would have applauded groups of parents, groups of amateurs, coming together to try and take control of a public service. He believed that small was beautiful.’

And that’s the point of free schools; that in devolving power locally to extraordinary individuals you can harness their energy and innovation. The parents of West London certainly think so: in its inaugural year WLFS attracted almost ten applicants to every place, making it the most competitive state school in the country. However, last year only 24 free school ap- plications were approved; the vast majority failed to make a viable business case. I put it to him that private capital may be the answer. After a lengthy pause for consideration, Toby endorsed the idea: ‘Provided the market is properly regulated, there is no reason why for-profit educations managements organisations (EMOs) shouldn’t be allowed to set up and operate free schools’ with ‘an array of minimum standards to which all schools need to comply’.

As for the concerns that free schools will suck the best teachers and pupils from neighbouring schools, he argues ‘a bit of competition is no bad thing. People are a bit wary of hitting that note too hard because it seems a bit cut-throat…but I’d argue it has a positive impact [on surrounding schools]’. This is the revolutionary principle that may strike the heart of the British educational establishment; that you should be able to shop for education like you do for groceries or foreign holidays. If rich parents can pay for choice, why can’t everyone else?

I was yet to fully comprehend what drives Toby; I hadn’t quite gleaned that anecdotal nugget which, once revealed, allows all the other facets of an interviewee’s character to fall into place. Then he helped me out: Toby is a Brasenose alumnus, but really he shouldn’t be. Having successfully applied, he needed to meet the unusually generous offer of three ‘B’s and an O-level ‘pass’ in a foreign language. Failing to exhibit the immodesty that would later make him famous in America, Toby told me that ‘my father and I concluded that getting three A-level B’s was simply beyond me’. And right they were; he received a ‘C’.

Remarkably though ‘I got this letter, and it wasn’t addressed to me personally, but it was evidently sent to successful candidates’ referring to the impersonal circular we all received having got our places. Alas it was a mistake. A week later he received the personal letter confirming he had failed to get the requisite grades and ‘wishing [him] success in his university career’. Despite an embarrassed Toby imploring him not to, his father rang up the college to explain the predicament. What ensured between the PPE tutors was an extraordinary philosophical exchange about whether a clerical error was grounds for admission. Apparently it was.

The lesson: that what constitutes success is marginal; that failure can be so easily grasped from its jaws. And whilst he had plenty of the latter, he excelled in student journalism. It was, he confesses, ‘my only real success’. He started a new magazine, based on the genius insight that – with a nod to Cherwell and Isis – ‘if I named it after a bigger river it would be a bigger magazine. I came up with the brilliant wheeze of calling it after a different river for each issue, the first being the Danube’. It only lasted two issues, though he subseuqently became the editor of Tributary, Oxford’s now defunct equivalent of Private Eye, whose previous editors included Andrew Sullivan and Niall Ferguson.

Toby was by all accounts, an awful Union hack. ‘I was extremely unsuccessful; no one voted for me. I failed to get elected to Treasurer’s Committee [now Secretary’s Committee]. I got nowhere.’ He had competition though; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were both contemporaries. No doubt the London mayor’s famous bombast in the Chamber trumped Toby’s somewhat pernickety campaign. The two have been friends since their days on the Spectator. He reflected, ‘I spent Saturday night at Boris’s victory party, which I probably wouldn’t have done when he won the Presidency of the Union’.

Showing how far he has strayed from his Labour roots, in 2002 Toby famously made a £15,000 bet with Nigella Lawson that Boris would be Tory leader within 15 years. Last Saturday the odds became a lot shorter. What about his own political ambitions though? No doubt he would relish the opportunity to rile up lefties – ‘I’ve always enjoyed baiting liberals’. Toby has the CV, the connections and a unique brand of ‘anti-charisma’ that could carry him into Parliament. He’s ambivalent – ‘Being an MP would remind me of those Oxford days shinning up the greasy pole’. Though he didn’t say as much, he considers what he does to be political.

His radical impulses are satisfied by free schools, which he wants to do more with. A book, about ‘class, education and British society’ is also in the pipeline. Though thoroughly hostile to Lords reform, he is enticed by the opportunity it presents. ‘I might stand for election in the House of Lords if indeed the changes that the Coalition are thinking of introducing [85% elected second chamber] go through’. Toby Young is a colourful character. His haphazard career. his cheerful approach to failure – ‘failing upwards’ as he puts it – and his DIY approach to solving social problems are all endearingly British. Not in the foppish style that has served Hugh Grant so well in Hollywood, but rather actually endearing to the British. He’s like a train without tracks; forceful, unpredictable and bewildering. And remarkably successful, if he won’t mind me saying.

Cherwell Interview with Michael Crick

Oxford is full of over-achievers. Everyone knows one, the person who will not rest until they’ve ascended the top societies; the suit who walks around town with the air of the Cabinet Minister they will one day become.

Michael Crick, previously Political Editor of Newsnight, and now Channel 4’s Chief Political Correspondent, was of this sort. He was an absolutely massive hack, editing Cherwell, chairing the Democratic Labour Club and becoming President of the Oxford Union – to which he returned last Thursday to participate in the Media and Politics debate. He’s a little embarrassed about it now – “It was awful. It was office accumulation for the sake of it” – but not at all remorseful. And why should he be? For it helped launch a glittering career in political journalism.

After Oxford Crick joined ITN, helping to launch Channel 4’s news team in 1982, and then working as its Washington correspondent, winning an RTS award in 1988 for his coverage of the Bush-Dukasis Presidential Election. From there he swapped to the BBC, first with its flagship investigative programme Panorama and then with Newsnight, becoming its political editor in 2007. But last year he hopped back to 4; he is now the Chief Political Correspondent of the network he joined as a lowly trainee three decades ago. He is famous for the political ambush, the prickly question and the chase. His greatest hits are when he does all three. When Iain Duncan Smith faced a leadership crisis, he delivered a speech at Party Conference famous for the line “The quiet man is here to stay”. Ironically he refused to take questions after the speech. Crick followed him to the next event, from which, as Duncan Smith left, he yelled: “Aren’t you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?” It is in no small part thanks to Crick that we have political satire like The Thick of It.

The job of political correspondents is to follow the day-to-day dramas that typify public life, and to analyse the characters of their subjects. Extraordinarily however, given the enormous pressure they exercise on the political class, what is often overlooked is the character of the journalists themselves.

Crick exudes the same characteristics in person that he gives out on screen. He is sharp, boisterous and funny. Opening his speech at the Union, he pivoted around the despatch box to address the President, John Lee, to deliver a phoney tribute that concluded with a description of the relationship between the Union President and Standing Committee as akin to that between a “villain and his sheep”. He is totally absent of any deference to the Establishment, for the simple reason that he had already outgrown it by the age of 22. But he’s very different from Jeremy Paxman, to whom this description could also be attributed, because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. He is entirely prepared to accost politicians in the street, or chase them down corridors at party conferences, to demand an answer to the question of when exactly they stopped beating their wives.

The reason Crick totally lacks humility with politicians is because he knows the game so intimately from his Union days. Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister, was a contemporary – beating him to the Union Presidency on Crick’s first attempt. He learnt from that, and won next time around. “The best elections” he tells me, “were when you frightened off the opposition so there wasn’t any, and there were a few of those.” This sound very much to be the school of Robert Mugabe electioneering, but then again it is the Union. During his campaign Cherwell “gave me a two page spread [fully one third of the entire paper in those days] – it was basically a manifesto for my candidacy.” Given the opprobrium regularly poured by the student press on the Union nowadays, I find this hilarious. But just as the country at large treated politicians with greater reverence in those days, so the Union was seen then as more of a serious focal point of student life.

And Crick has had no small role in smashing that wholly undeserved reverence. He clearly loves the job, applying the same skills he acquired as a student hack to making politicians squeal in front of camera. What makes a good hack, I ask? “It’s about getting people to do things when you don’t actually have much power, just the power of ambition” is the straightforward reply. The same applies to journalism. After the Leveson Inquiry the media industry is currently on its knees, but the importance of holding power to account has never been more important.

Predictably perhaps, Crick’s familiarity with politicians has made him totally immune to their charms and suspicious of ideology. He left university firmly in the Labour camp, though “to the right of 1980s Labour”, a natural stance for a grammar school and Oxbridge lad of that generation to take. This soon changed. “You have an opinion-ectomy when you go into broadcast journalism” he says very matter-of-factly, though print journalism is of course an entirely different kettle of fish. At Oxford he had “always intended journalism to be the means into politics”, but when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in a safe Labour seat presented itself, he turned it down and has “felt liberated” ever since.

More than that though: thirty years of close association with Westminster life has hollowed out the politics in him. As a leading political observer he is constantly asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, but in doing so he has unlearnt and rejected the ‘ought’. It’s dispiriting to hear him say, both because of what it tells you about the cynicism of Parliament by those closest to it and the implications of that: that we’re going to continue to see dull humanoids occupy Parliament. So apathetic is Crick that he “[doesn’t] vote at all, partly because of the job I do but partly I don’t know what I think any more. The only view I have now is that I’d bring back capital punishment, but only for people who drop chewing gum on pavements.”

What words of wisdom does he have for those who want to follow him into media career? “Build alliances” is his answer, “stay in touch with people you meet at Oxford.” The implication I take from this is that journalism is nepotistic – if you look at how many journalists had parents or close family in the profession then you’ll understand how true this remains. Crick however claims never to have obtained a job through contacts, but as the industry contracts and graduate schemes become scarce, they will be increasingly important. “Being a journalist employs a narrow range of skills” is his last piece of advice, so it’s vital “to master those skills” and develop a specialism in the area you want to cover.

That powerful people go to great lengths to avoid Crick is a testament not only to how well he does the job, but to how much a spirited and informed democracy relies on quality, investigative journalism. As Newsnight, Crick’s old haunt, has been thrown into crisis in recent weeks, that point should be made with all the more force. Whilst I can imagine despising the nakedly ambitious Crick as a student, the grown-up version is almost impossible not to warm to. In that sense the message for today’s generation of hacks is far from bleak.

Cherwell: ‘OUSU is doomed to dullness’

Here’s my piece reproduced from last week’s Cherwell about Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), in light of tomorrow’s election:

On Tuesday polls open for the OUSU elections. Rafts of candidates are standing for coveted positions in the student union, and we’re all invited to help pick which smiley-faced do-gooders go Imagewhere. But even though it only takes about 40 seconds to go online and vote, most of us (82% last year) won’t bother.

To the extent that OUSU rests in our consciousness at all it is associated with three things: incessant emails, free condoms and David J. Townsend, in that order. Nothing much can change that, though perhaps if David J. Townsend just let us call him ‘Dave’ we might cultivate more of a cuddly affinity to the place.

This year’s contenders for President are promising to change that. Izzy Westbury’s tagline, ‘refreshOUSU’ has a certain ring to it, but it’s not at all realistic – and she knows it. The truth is that the fierce apathy students will once again show is entirely rational. That is because we are not one student body, but several (46 to be precise). Oxford is not a homogeneous mass with the student union at its centre; rather, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, it consists in ‘little platoons’. It is in the confines of college – that lovely space where social and academic life are messily integrated – where most of our problems arise and are then solved.

The collegiate Oxford system dooms OUSU to irrelevance. OUSU is to students what the EU is to the British. We’re totally ignorant of what happens there, though vaguely suspicious that some kind of black magic is going on, and treat enthusiasts with a mix of amusement and condescension. To push the analogy explicitly, we don’t want to be ruled (represented) from Brussles (Worcester Road – OUSU HQ) because ‘we already have our own Parliament (JCR) thank you very much!’

It doesn’t help that Oxford is replete with clubs, societies and journals that suck away energy from the official student union. Proud institutions like the Oxford Union and OUDS who long pre-date OUSU dominate university life. Consequently OUSU is a shell. It functions in the shadows, rarely coming into contact with students (the one exception is RAG, its charity arm).

This is not to say that we don’t need OUSU. Indeed its foundation is instructive in why we do need it. In 1961, the University Proctors banned the then-weekly magazine Isis from publishing reviews of lectures. Students resisted, but lacked a body through which to represent themselves to the university. OUSU was born out of that need, and it continues to fight our corner today. But it will always fail to capture of imagination or, save extraordinary circumstances, touch our lives.

George Galloway: “I haven’t made any political errors”

Reproduced from Cherwell

There’s a famous scene in Spitting Image, ITV’s now expired satirical puppet show, parodying Neil Kinnock’s 1987 election broadcast. “Nurses, nurses, teachers, nurses!” the puppet Kinnock blasts into the loudspeaker. “Old people, black people, yellow people, nurses!” The Labour leader was portrayed as an excitable iconoclast carried away by the chaotic passion of his own rhetoric.

Were Spitting Image still going, I daresay the show would have caricatured George Galloway – the Respect MP for Bradford – in much the same manner. His buzzwords are different of course: “murder”, “imperialism” and “Bush-Blair” were deployed indiscriminately throughout his speech last week at the Oxford Union.

His elected topic, ‘The World At War’, was a safe one. Though accusations of demagoguery and misogyny have ruptured his relationship with the Left, the undeniable doggedness which he brings to the anti-war movement still earns him their grudging respect.

By the time we sit down Galloway has been at it for over an hour, and an hour of bellowing acoustics, thrusting gesticulation and fierce mental awareness would incapacitate most politicians. He has visited the Union before, on one occasion, in 1988, as a guest of the then-President Michael Gove. “We became friends,” Galloway recounts with a surprising warmth. Though both hail from modest Scottish backgrounds, such a friendship still seems peculiar.

It should be remembered that Galloway has some experience of cosying up to people with whom – ostensibly at least – he does not agree. Infamously in 1994 he lauded Saddam Hussein for his “courage, strength and indefatigability”. Less than a decade later, as the courageous Iraqi dictator hid in a hole near Tikrit, Galloway led the anti-war movement back home, calling for British soldiers to “refuse to obey illegal orders”. Once this had prompted his expulsion from the Labour Party, he began clamouring for Tony Blair’s extradition to the Hague for “war crimes”. He repeats the demand in our interview, referring to the “indictment I carry in my briefcase” and promising to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the former PM if they ever find each other in the same room.

“I haven’t made any substantial political errors,” Galloway retorts, after I suggest that these sorts of serial mishaps undermine his credibility as a politician. He does, however, confess to errors “of phrasing and words”. The distinction is an odd one to make, given that his recent guide to the “sex game” provoked the resignation of Salma Yaqoob, Respect’s leader. Galloway seems sincere when he says “we’re very sorry that she’s left”, but sees the subsequent media storm as essentially poppycock: “When someone leaves us, they are invested with such an importance, an importance which they were never given when they were with us.”

But why does he never apologise for his bouts of verbal flatulence? “Not true, simply not true, you haven’t done your research as well as you thought you had,” he counters. When I asked for an example of a public apology he had made, he shrewdly declined: “It wouldn’t profit me to go through my list of regrets.” But it might profit me of course, so I went and did some homework.

And it turns out he has recently apologised to a tweeter whom – in the heat of an online ar- gument in August – Galloway branded a “window-licker”, a derogatory term for the mentally handicapped. His apology was limp and equivocating, but still it was remarkable that he made one at all. Perhaps the relaxations of a honeymoon in Indonesia with his fourth wife have evinced a softer side.

But will he apologise over his rape comments? “No.” He believes that “Julian Assange has been set up. The allegations against him… are entirely bogus.” The problem is that for Galloway to accept that the allegations constitute rape, he could no longer be so sure of the conspiracy he has built up around WikiLeaks. Without irony, he concluded an answer on the topic to a PhD student, Nicole, with this diatribe: “Trust me on this, sister, the day will come when you’ll be embarrassed to have asked me that question because you’ll know what you don’t know now. I’ll forgive you for not knowing it.” Needless to say Nicole was less than impressed by this generous gesture.

It is well known that Galloway holds himself in high regard. There’s a story in Chris Mullin’s new diary that is fast becoming legend in Westminster. During a parliamentary visit to Vietnam, Mullin recounts a special meal laid on for the delegation: “Almost everyone at the table had lost a member of his family. One had lost four brothers. This didn’t stop George regaling them with tales of ‘my first injury in the struggle’, which turned out to be a kick he received from a police horse during the 1968 anti-war demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.” The following day, at another meeting, “George again regaled the assembly with tales of his long service to socialism. The district chairman, a canny old boy, listened politely when George again referred to his ‘first injury in the struggle’. Then, without batting an eyelid he inquired: ‘And what was your second?’”

Galloway’s antagonists will variably tell you that he isan egotist, a conspiracy theorist, a hypocrite, a dictator-loving sycophant, and a rather nasty bigot. These criticisms undoubtedly sully his reputation, but they also energise the vocal minority, who – as Galloway never tires of remind- ing me – have “elected me to the British Parliament six times”, most recently in the “Bradford Spring” that liberated the oppressed peoples of West Yorkshire earlier this year.

Another slightly peculiar boast is his presence on “alternative” media. Specifically he is tagged in “over 12,000 videos on YouTube”. That’s funny, because barely eight weeks previously, Galloway had spoken on his ‘Molucca Red’ channel of a mere “11,800 videos, the last time I checked.” He obviously keeps a close tab. It seems that Galloway’s globetrotting schedule, hopping from Venezuela to Kazakhstan in the week before we met, doesn’t stop him cultivating the cyber-vanity of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. One thinks it’s beneath him, until you remember that this is the same George Galloway who let Channel 4 film him licking milk out of the hands of one of his fellow Big Brother housemates.

At the St Stephen’s Gate Entrance to Parliament stands a statue of Charles James Fox, the Whig MP ejected twice for treacherously supporting the American minutemen and, later, the French revolutionaries. For a time Fox cast a lonely figure with a lot to say but few sympathetic enough to hear it. Vindication by history saved his reputation. Galloway – who has evoked Fox on multiple occasions – is acutely conscious of the opprobrium poured on him by the British media and political establishment: “I don’t ask anyone to love me. I am what I am.”

Is It Still Worth Climbing the Greasy Pole of Oxford Politics?

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

Aside from yet another tedious round of Oxbridge bashing, the BBC’s new series ‘Young, Bright and On the Right’ fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our Oxbridge-educated political elite.

There indeed used to be a time when climbing up the greasy pole of Oxford politics promised ‘glittering prizes’ to those fierce and ambitious enough to brave it. William Gladstone famously captivated the debate chamber of the Oxford Union in vociferous opposition to the impending 1832 Great Reform Act. He would go on to become President, before entering Parliament a year after his graduation. Asquith and Heath would similarly come to dominate Westminster via ascendancy of the Oxford Union.

This is plainly the path to power that Chris and Joe, the Tory boys, have in mind. Unfortunately that path, however well worn, is disintegrating.

Glancing at today’s ‘big beasts’ it admittedly doesn’t seem so. BoJo, whose flirtations with the Tory crown have almost induced Tory backbenchers to orgasm, was a Union President. And William Hague established himself by achieving the elusive Oxford ‘triple’: President of the Union, the Conservative Association and First Class Honours in PPE. Command of student politics still sets one up nicely for the big-boy stuff, it seems.

Michael Heseltine at the Union, President in Michaelmas ’54. Photograph: popperfoto

However the trend is moving firmly in the other direction. Consider today’s leaders of both Left and Right: Cameron, Osborne and Miliband. All at Oxford, and all wholly withdrawn from the murky world of student politics. The reasons for their detachment vary. Cameron preferred chasing girls and playing tennis, with success in both. Miliband was just a bit square (reportedly his fame as a student rested on being able to solve a Rubik’s cube in 30 seconds). Osborne was simply an awful hack. Before entering Parliament he had only contested one prior election, for Magdalen College JCR Entz Rep. He lost.

But they all had one thing in common: connections. These were of differing types and natures, but all made it to the despatch box by utilising them.

Cameron infamously received his first job at the Conservative Research Department following a call of recommendation from Buckingham Palace (who placed the call is pure speculation). Osborne secured a similar job after a tip-off from a friend. And in the Hampstead suburbs in which the Milibands were left-wing aristocracy, Ed had no trouble pursuing the Special Adviser route into politics.

Oxford matters of course, but not in the way Chris and Joe think. The Bullingdon matters. Cultivating the right friendships matters. College alumni can be helpful. Most of all though the attributes of family wealth, a baronetcy and private education all spawn a prodigious network of contacts that far outweighs the social assets accumulated at the dwindling political societies. I know of three people – no doubt there are more – who have got their foot in the door by exploiting contacts. One received an internship at CCHQ through his brother’s girlfriend; another spent a fortnight in Downing Street courtesy of her father, a prominent Tory donor and the third shadowed a Cabinet Minister who was a close family acquaintance. None hold any position at OCA or the Union.

Tomorrow’s Camerons and Osbornes already have their future figured out, even if the exact details haven’t yet fallen into place. They don’t need CUCA or OCA for fulfil their aspirations in the acute sense that Chris and Joe feel they do. So they don’t bother going. And anyway, a litany of scandals (resulting in OCA being stripped by the University if its ‘U’) has depleted the kudos that would otherwise come with being OCA President. Consequently the Oxford Tories I know are a generally unambitious bunch. They enjoy the company of those of similar political persuasion and mutual acquaintance, but are immediately suspicious of attempts to use the Association as a ‘platform’ from which to launch a political career. Joe, a former President of OCA, is seen by his contemporaries in precisely this light.

So Chris and Joe, do carry on moving in Tory circles, squeezing the flesh of fellow hacks. But don’t expect political fortune to come your way. In 21st century Britain the networks of power bypass mere clubs and societies. If you haven’t had the good sense to be born of good stock, there’s no making up for that by ingratiating yourselves to those who have.

And please, for your sakes, don’t go pleading your case on the BBC. It’ll be the last time you make it onto a television screen.