An Oxford Union speaker has accused the society of censorship, after the Union refused to publicise a video of last term’s whistleblowing panel online.
Heather Marsh, who spoke on the panel, claimed that the society’s staff had been “comically obfuscating” since the event, and claimed in a letter dated 25th April that failing to upload the footage to YouTube was both a departure from usual practice and a breach of her contract to speak. The Union have denied Marsh’s allegations.
At the panel, Marsh, a journalist and former administrator of a WikiLeaks site, strongly criticised fellow panellist David Shedd. Shedd is a former CIA operative, and later became US Deputy Director of National Intelligence under Barack Obama’s administration.
Marsh told Cherwell that the Union’s bursar, Lindsay Warne, informed her that Shedd had pressured for the video to be withheld. Marsh’s letter quotes Warne saying that “it was ironic that we were censoring a whistleblowing panel!”
However, Union president Gui Cavalcanti told Cherwell that the society was under “no obligation to upload it to our YouTube channel or to publicise the event to third parties or the media”. They said they were “in no breach of contract” given the contract to which Marsh alludes was actually a ‘participant’s consent form.’
Warne also told Cherwell that she “made absolutely no mention of David Shedd or any other panellist” and that she gave Marsh “a general explanation, which was that we can only upload events when all the speakers involved have signed the consent form.” She notes that her comment was actually that “it’s ironic if the whistleblowing panel don’t want it published.”
In a later statement to Cherwell, Marsh claimed that, as a result of its actions, the Union’s ‘last bastion of free speech’ slogan applied only to “those in power.”
Marsh argued the society did not tolerate opinions which “show any diversity from those of a totalitarian state.”
The letter read: “If you did want to censor a part of the panel, to accommodate the pettiness and fragility of another panelist, it is perfectly easy to remove his audio track and blur his image.
“Other panelists have no standing to censor the parts where I am speaking. Does a petulant loser have the right to censor the entire debate?”
Referring to a visit to the Union on 20th April to pick up expense reimbursement, Marsh writes: “I asked, again, when the video of the event would be posted. I was told by your bursar, Lindsey Warne, that ‘A great many people are asking, but that video is not ever going up.’”
The letter added: “She also said ‘We have had many meetings about this.’ Both of these statements are in direct contradiction to repeated statements… regarding the video over the last two months.”
Marsh continued: “Whether or not Oxford Union owes any consideration to journalists, who usually work extremely hard, at frequent great risk, in an increasingly impossible job, is a matter, I suppose, between the Oxford Union and the British public. I believe, however, (and my lawyers agree) that [Ms. Warne] is very mistaken regarding the consideration and obligation owed to speakers, in terms of both respect and legality.”
The letter also quoted part of the Union’s invitation offer.
The offer said: “‘All our events can be professional filmed for our YouTube channel, which has received over 40 million views since it was relaunched last year. It goes without saying, though, that the level of media coverage would be entirely at your discretion.’”
But Marsh wrote that the opportunity for such publicity “is especially dependent on the committee and staff of the Oxford Union not treating journalists with utter disrespect and leading them on for two months with a bureaucratic run-around of contradictory falsehoods.”
The letter also read: “You are in breach of contract. The loss I have suffered include…loss of professional opportunity resulting from a timely release of the video; professional or personal reputational loss due to your conduct in censoring my work with no proffered explanation to the public and your disrespect to interested journalists.
“In the event that you continue dealing in bad faith regarding this matter, I reserve the right to commence legal proceedings against you without further notice.”
Cavalcanti told Cherwell: “We are in no breach of contract, nor is it ‘departure from common practice’ for our events not to be uploaded to our YouTube channel – just this academic year, we’ve had multiple events not uploaded, ranging from JJ Abrams to Sir Patrick Stewart.”
Part of this ‘Participant’s Consent Form’ states that by agreeing for a contribution to be recorded, Marsh had agreed to “assign to Oxford Union Limited the copyright and all other rights…in your Contribution for use in all media now known or which may be developed in the future.”
The agreement states that: “You agree that we may edit your Contribution and you agree to waive, and not in the future seek to exercise, any ‘moral rights’ you have in respect of any uses of you Contribution.”
Cherwell understands that Marsh began her comments at the panel event by stating: “My focus has always been human rights and horizontal governance. Of the human rights atrocities I have worked to expose, a very large number are associated with David Shedd and the organisations and allies he represents. David Shedd belonged to the most powerful, well-funded, weaponised, international, organised crime syndicate the world has ever seen.
“Not even counting the other organisations he is affiliated with or those he calls his allies – just looking at the CIA by itself – they are in the business of assassinations, they manage black sites for torture, they work with local mafias, cartels and militias all over the world, they run operations trafficking weapons, drugs and people all over the world.
“So, when these men talk about whistleblowers threatening national security, we need to ask three obvious questions: what is security to them, who is their nation, and who are the whistleblowers?”
Referring to Marsh’s accusations, Oxford Union Society Bursar, Lindsay Warne, told Cherwell: “I am sorry that my conversation with Ms Marsh has not been remembered at all accurately.
“I made absolutely no mention of David Shedd or any other panellist – in fact, as I am not involved with loading recordings etc, when Ms Marsh came to the General Office demanding why the event was not uploaded I gave her what I believed the true and general explanation which was that we can only upload events when all the speakers involved have signed the consent form, and that as I had no idea whether consent had been signed or not, I could not comment further.
“Ms Marsh is totally mistaken in her comment that I had said we had ‘had many meetings’ as to this day I haven’t attended one on this subject, nor have any been held to my knowledge.”
She added: “Some speakers prefer not to have their events uploaded but just wish to address the members in person, so don’t sign the forms. Also, the consents give us the rights over the content, not the obligation to publicise.”
Marsh told Cherwell: “The Oxford Union should make clear to potential speakers that it is only the ‘last bastion of free speech’ for those in power and change its slogan to reflect that – I suggest ‘the last bastion for punching down.’”
Marsh also said: “The incoherence, unprofessionalism and fear of being associated with the action (of not posting the video) indicates that they also know it is indefensible.”
In her letter, she writes that prior to meetings with Warne, “it was initially very difficult to get any kind of honest communication out of the committee members or staff – I lost count of the ridiculous and contradictory stories about this video.”
Marsh maintains that it took a legal letter to receive confirmation from the Union’s Committee that they were not going to post the video. She said that the Oxford Union staff and committee have been “comically obfuscating” since the panel event.
She noted that the only subsequent correspondence since the 25th April letter was current President Gui Cavalcanti “replying to my letter before action, on the last day legally mandated (9th May)” to inform her that the decision taken under [then-President] Laali Vadlamani’s tenure not to post the YouTube video would be upheld.”
David Shedd did not respond to Cherwell’s request for comment.