Why are some university debating societies havens of misogyny?

The heckling experienced by female debaters at Glasgow University Union is an unwelcome reminder of a previous age where personal insults were fair game. And anyone who disagrees is a dickless baboon.

Today, the Spectator published an article by Gerald Warner, defending the conduct of a bunch of idiots who heckled female speakers during a debate at the Glasgow University Union debates. According to Warner, women should just laugh off being discussed salaciously in terms of their looks, and being booed for even mentioning feminism in a speech - his solution is that they should have derailed their speeches, and heckled back. "The problem is today’s politically correct debaters... cannot tolerate contradiction or ridicule. It simply is not in the script."

Of course, Warner misses the point - these women have advanced to the final of a national debating competition, and deserve to have their speeches heard, without interruptions from people without the intellectual capacity to get to that level. Would Warner support racist hecklers at the sidelines of the Olympics, booing Mo Farah for being black? Tell him to just toughen up, deal with it?

Gerald Warner is living in the past, in more ways than one. He seems to think minority groups just need to toughen up, to take the banter. As one of the debaters in question, Rebecca Meredith, says here, not only does the Glasgow Union regularly boo and heckle women, but ethnic minorities too - for nothing more than the temerity to be not born white and male. Is that ok, Mr Warner?

Warner goes on to lionise the rowdy, laddish banteriffic culture of the Glasgow University Union, and then goes on to tell us of the illustrious history, of competitions won, of presidents who have advanced on into politics, of 1960s occasions where ANC leaders were voted in as rector. An illustrious past does not make up for a shameful present - a quick look around the Facebook profiles surrounding the GUU swiftly uncovers that as recently as 2010, a GUU Secretary "follow[ed] tradition with a joke about raping freshers whilst blacked up. No means yes, yes means harder." I wonder what the former ANC rector would make of "blacking up to rape" gags?

It looks more like there is something sick within the Glasgow's debating society - the Everyday sexism in the GUU page makes for distressing reading. On it, anonymous commenters talk about "games" like "fat girl rodeo" - where you grab a girl in a club, tell her you are going to rape her, and then see how long you can hang on for. Board members allegedly proposition freshers with lines like "You look like a fucking slut who is gagging for it". The men who blocked women from being members of the Union are looked on as heroes. The shameful exclusion of women from the Union until the 1980s has been taken up as a rallying cry by misogynists within the Union - which might explain why it has done so badly at debating for years.

Gerald Warner's assessment of the quality of the GUU is years out of date. As he rightly points out, they used to be good. But they haven't won the national debating competition (the Mace) or even reached the elimination stages of the World Championships in over a decade. Maybe if they were less hostile to women or people of colour, that might change?

The truth is, 14 years ago, when I was regularly debating, this sort of revolting, discourteous booing and catcalling and generalised misogyny was the norm; I distinctly remember a Glasgow judge grabbing my debate partner's breasts and saying "If you'd showed more of these, we might have let you win". At the time, Oxford and Cambridge were almost as bad - I recall speeches where a Cambridge debater divided up an audience into "sluts" and "frigid girls you'd marry", and a president of the Oxford Union told me that the fact a speaker from my "toytown former polytechnic university spoke on the floor of the Oxford Union denigrated the whole institution of debating".

The rest of university debating has moved on since - particularly through the efforts of charities like DebateMate, Idea, and the English Speaking Union, debating has been democratised, and is now a much more welcoming and pleasant place. I hope that women and ethnic minorites feel welcome - indeed, women have been the top speakers in the world several times in the last few years. Contrary to Gerald Warner's assertion that "as with politics, fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them", female participation is at an all-time high - and a large part of that comes down to people refusing to tolerate misogyny, and it gradually being stamped out.

What Warner wants is a return to a misogynist free-for-all, where any insult, no matter who delivers it, counts as a valid argument to be rebutted. He laughably characterises any attempt to stand up to that culture as "Stalinist".  In which case, I'd like to say that if Gerald Warner thinks misogynist insults are a valid part of debate, then he's a paranoid dinosaur, with all the writing grace of a dickless baboon. Is that a valid argument, Mr Warner?

Willard Foxton was once the 7th best speaker in the world for "toytown polytechnic" the university of the West of England, and twice won the world's funniest debater prize.

A moody baboon. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder