Oxford has enjoyed yet another week of national media attention. It started with a shooting, continued with a portrait, and ended with a proposal for new colleges. The right-wing media has again shown its fixation with the intricacies of student life. Both my co-editor, Matt, and I were on talk radio shows this week getting called up for students’ so-called ‘snowflake’ attitudes by oddly obsessed, past-it presenters like Julia Hartley-Brewer and Nick Ferrari.
There is a group in the media who seem to think that every student protest is a catastrophic event with an impact that could change the world we live in. The removal of one portrait from the wall of one department in one university is equated to an apocalyptic event. When I talk to freelance journalist and Guardian writer, Dawn Foster, about the event she explains this constant focus. “It’s very easy to mock. It involves younger people, so it is a lot easier to complain about students and paint them as overly-sensitive than it is to dismiss people with equally legitimate grievances but who are older and might be potential voters. It’s a lot easier to depict student politics as very ephemeral and as if it doesn’t have any impact on the real world when it does.”
But, as she points out, the focus on student politics itself indicates that it has some importance. “At the same time, it seems like a double standard where everyone says that student politics has no effect on the real world and at the same time the fact that someone isn’t going to be invited to a talk that is run by a student society is seen as the worst thing possible. A lot of these people can’t have it both ways. Either student protest is stupid and you should ignore it or it is important and you should support it and critique it. At the moment, they try to have their cake and eat it.”
Foster, who started as a comment moderator for the journalist straight out of university, says that the media profession needs to look at its own problems with censorship before it starts criticising others. “I find it really weird, because I work in media, and there is a huge amount of censorship going on in the media. There are a lot of people I know who do struggle to get their voices heard.”
She is right when she says that the reason for the faux outrage is that “a lot of the media come from Oxford and Cambridge and therefore feel they have a connection to it.” Hartley-Brewer, for instance, went to Magdalen College in the ‘80s and was recently criticised for claming that “I didn’t go to Oxford because I was privileged. I went to Oxford because I was clever.” This group of commentators have felt a loss of control over their old insitutions, and have taken to mocking and ridiculing student protest because they know that if they took them seriously, they would lose the argument.
I ask Foster about the event that has caused so much national uproar in the past few days: the removal of Theresa May’s portrait from the walls of the geography department after student and academic protest. Foster claims that she knew about the controversy long before students became involved in the protest. “This was an important protest,” she says. “I came about it because some of the academics involved spoke to me about it. This was before the student protests really began. I knew that, from speaking to the academics, a lot of them – even before the portrait went up – had lodged a complaint and were very unhappy about it.
“They thought it set a bad precedent. I completely agreed with what they said: the issue isn’t that they were honouring a PM. It is more that they were honouring a PM who is in office when, as academics obviously, a lot of their work will involve critiquing the government so if you’re then sanctifying them. That does have worrying implications.”
Ultimately, the removal of the portrait is far less significant than everyone has made out. It may return, it may not, but, for sections of the media, the whole protest has already done its job. They don’t care about the outcome of the story, but just want to present an idea of Oxford students as weak, wimpy, and pathetic. They don’t care that this is a completely inaccurate representation and that many students didn’t so much as bat an eyelid because of the removal of the portrait.
This was not because they support censorship or the start of the formation of an Orwellian super-state, but because they have better things to do with their time. Right-wing media are bored and they are losing power, and that is why they latch onto the small issues and expand them to seismic proportions.
This was not the first time in recent weeks that Oxford has been at the centre of controversy because of student protest. The May ‘scandal’ comes only weeks after students protested against a group who they said had transphobic views. I ask Foster about why transphobia has become so common, especially within universities, and why there are so many who wish to subjugate the trans community.
“I think the issue with transphobic groups is in particular is that they are very small and very loud. Universities are often the only places, apart from the mainstream media, where they are given a voice. So if they can come out and try and claim that they are being silenced purely because are protesting while they are speaking, then it gives them more of a platform to try and amplify their voice beyond that one small thing.”
She says that transphobes have again created the idea that they are being silenced, while receiving disproportionate media attention. “I think people who are trying to push back against this will always try to claim that they are being silenced. Purely to try and get their voices amplified but everyone who I have heard claim that they are being silenced is either on mainstream media outlets or is constantly on my television. So I don’t think it holds any truck.”
As far as Foster is concerned, we will look back at transphobic people as being on the wrong side of history. “I think that in many ways, we will end up looking back at the row over trans rights in the same way that we do on Section 28 and race now. Obviously in the 80s, you had some members of the Conservative Party who wore hang Nelson Mandela t-shirts, and who are really anti-apartheid, and members of the Conservative Party who were against gay rights.
“I think it will be the same sort of thing. People protested against homophobia in the 90s, and they protested against racial subjugation in the 80s, and we still have to do that now. But now, the battle ground has moved predominantly towards trans rights.”
She says that although there is some overlap between transphobic groups and earlier social conservatives, the picture is more complicated. “Some of the people who used to in the past push against gay rights and black and minority rights, some of them are the same people. A lot of them are the same people, some of them are radical feminists who have moved in that direction. It is more a Venn diagram than entirely the same people.
She adds that the opposition to transphobia is more united. “Equally a good number of people in the Conservative party and the majority of people in the Labour party have no truck with this transphobic movement. Justine Greening, and lots of others in the tory party, have come out saying that they find lots of the transphobic acts that are going on now really abhorrent. So I think it is really clear to a lot of these people that they are losing the argument and that is why they are acting out so much.”
Foster is an outlier in the left-wing media. She is a Roman Catholic, and often tweets about her beliefs. I ask whether these two aspects ever come into conflict. “I mean, especially with the Irish referendum coming up at the moment, those things can come into contrast. I think it easier to be a right-wing journalist and be religious simply because people don’t question it so much.
“Because of the way society works, the right-wing religious people tend to be more predominant. A lot of my friends are left-wing and Christian and talk about politics and explain that politics comes down a lot more to your social background than your beliefs.”
She says that the Catholic teachings are similar to the aims of the left. “A lot of teaching, especially Catholic social teaching, is about combating poverty and helping people so it doesn’t have too much of a disconnect.”
Foster is part of a generation of journalists who have gained huge followings on Twitter although they may not be that well-known to the individual person interested in journalism.
She now has over 55,000 followers and her tweets regularly spread all over the Twittersphere. I ask her whether that sphere has created a media bubble and whether journalists are doing enough to combat that.
“Yeah I think so,” Foster says. She adds that although Twitter is certainly useful for breaking down the bubble, it is more traditional forms of journalism that are more effective. “I think that there is a weird sort of fetishisation of people following other people on Twitter who they disagree with. I tend to find that that is the worst way to find out what the other side think. So I predominantly use Twitter to see what is going on in the news today and to talk to people about politics.
“I find it helpful to tease out things from the other side but if I want to know what my political enemies are thinking I will read a newspaper rather than following them on twitter. Twitter can be handy for point-scoring, but I don’t think it does a huge amount in bursting bubbles that people complain exist. I think that actually reading a newspaper and watching a more right-wing television programme will be a lot more helpful than me following someone on twitter and seeing who they complain about on that day.”
Twitter has transformed journalism and commentary has become instant and constant. As I come to finish my interview with her, I notice from Foster’s profile that she has recently tweeted about the recommendations for Oxford to establish another college to help with access. She shared the story and simply commented: “oh fuck off”. I ask her about the issue and whether it presents a possible solution. She says “I think this is absolutely the stupidest way to go about it.
“It allows Oxford to carry on behaving as it likes in its admission process and then you have one college where it can put working-class people and black people. But at the same time not to anything to change their admissions policies whatsoever.”
She is right in that the idea of additional colleges allows Oxford to escape from having to act to change its admission process. She mentions a case at UCL where the English department were forced to take admissions away from the departmental structure because tutors couldn’t be trusted with them. She says that Oxford may be approaching a similar point.
“It seems Oxford can’t be trusted to accept the fact that there are plenty of people who are working-class and who are black who could easily go to Oxford and would obviously get good grades. So I think that if Oxford can’t do that, they shouldn’t be trusted, and I think that having a get away with it college is the stupidest way possible of dealing with it.”
As we come to the end of the interview, I begin to realise that Foster is an antidote to the poison spread by the likes of Hartley-Brewer. She is interested, open to debate, and seems to genuinely care about the views and actions of others. With her voice being shared ever more widely, it seems that Foster is becoming an even more prominent commentator on the left. In light of the recent spotlight on the frankly insignificant problems at this university, this can only be a good thing for journalists, students, and the wider population alike.