My brush with Bilderberg

Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, says Nelson Jones. The concerns of rabble-rousing Texan radio host Alex Jones may be risible but those of Labour MP Michael Meacher

I'm sitting in a field near Watford on a glorious summer evening. Just visible across several rolling acres of exquisitely landscaped parkland, nestled discreetly among the trees, is the Grove Hotel, where up to 150 of the world's most powerful and influential people, including George Osborne, Henry Kissinger and Google's Eric Schmidt, are holding confidential talks. Ed Balls is there as well.  Over here, cordoned off in a heavily-guarded "protest area", are at least ten times that number, the majority of whom believe that the guests in the Grove (aka the Bilderberg group) are up to no good, although the precise nature of their 60 year old conspiracy varies according to who you ask.  

It's a relaxed, even cheerful event, despite the crush of numbers (by mid-afternoon, the venue was full and hundreds have reportedly been turned away) and despite the serious implications of the global conspiracy being hatched half a mile away. There are provocative tee-shirts (the best slogan being "Kissinger my ass"), protest banners denouncing the New World Order, a man holding a ventriloquist's dummy and a rap artist wearing stick-on pointed ears. There's some security theatre, but the police and G4S are on their best behaviour, with the result that only rhetorical anger is on display. People are here to expose the Bilderberg group, even to laugh at it, not to destroy it.

Right now (it's shortly after 6pm) Alex Jones, the rabble-rousing Texan radio host now notorious for his outburst on Andrew Neil's Sunday Politics show yesterday, is leading the crowd in a chant of "We know you are killers" aimed in the general direction of the Grove. Jones's belief, which he has just outlined with much conviction though no discernible evidence, is that the shadow world government (as represented and perhaps constituted by the assembled Bilderbergers) is in the advanced stages of a strategy to halve and then enslave the world's population. "They are literally putting cancer into your children's food," he warns the crowd, who seem to be receptive to the message. Many of them will have heard it before: Jones's Infowars broadcast claims an audience of five million listeners. But if Jones's audience really believed what he was telling them one might expect them to be more visibly disturbed.

(Jones's subsequent meltdown on Sunday Politics divided opinion among Bilderberg-watchers. For some, he had blown a precious opportunity and given respectable conspiracy theorists a bad name. Others, however, saw it as a clever stratagem to gain maximum publicity - an aim in which it undoubtedly succeeded, although publicity is far from being the same as credibility.)

If Jones and his fellow headliner David Icke represent one extreme of the anti-Bilderberg tendency, the presence of Labour MP Michael Meacher suggests that concern isn't confined entirely to UFO believers and people who smoked too much dope in the 1960s. Meacher's beef was with the intrinsic lack of accountability involved with what he calls "leaders of Western finance capitalism" meeting in secret. "They want to have complete frankness, serious policy making, they want to concert their plans - which are pretty brutal,"  he complained, to wild applause.

And here, for me, lies the paradox of this event. Billed by the organisers as the "first ever Bilderberg Fringe festival", it is in many ways indeed fairly fringe ("Tinfoil-hatsonbury," one wag calls it). Speaker after speaker earns cheers for denouncing 9/11 as in inside job, calling global warming a scam and warning about plans to microchip the entire population. People I speak to are eager to discuss pyramid power, satanic ritual sacrifice and the global elite's dependence on something called "monatomic gold". Easy pickings for mainstream journalists after a dismissive vignette, as is the presence of Jones and Icke.  In the absence of information from the actual conference, and with no pictures of arriving delegates beyond a procession of cars with blacked-out windows, it's difficult to portray Bilderberg in a serious light.  

Yet newsworthy it surely is. Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched, (Kissinger, yes. Mandelson, even. But Ed Balls?) but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, three days in which top bankers and corporate executives are holed up with influential politicians and international civil servants including the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Alex Jones's concerns may be risible but Meacher's are not. Even if the Bilderbergers aren't secretly running the world, or for that matter deciding anything of substance, there is symbolism in their gathering, and in David Cameron's acceptance on Friday of an invitation to join them.  

Beyond the conspiracy pantomime lurk very real concerns. Concern over the way the international financial system, post crash, seems to have been rigged in favour of the banks and the plutocrats. Concern over the increasing possibilities of state surveillance of individuals, as shown this very weekend with the news about the US authorities' PRISM programme, not to mention the ongoing debate over the Home Office's proposed Communications Data Bill.  Concern about the impact of globalisation. Concern above all about the growing chasm that seems to separate a feather-bedded elite from a mass of the population whose jobs and incomes seem ever less secure.

That this year's Bilderberg conference has attracted so much media attention and so many protesters is testament to decades of obsessional pursuit by Alex Jones and fellow conspiracy theorists. For decades, even during the postwar years when they were genuinely influential, the meetings received no publicity at all. But it also suggests that their ideas are becoming mainstream. Icke had the air of a man vindicated after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, as well he might: last week he announced a plan to launch his own internet TV station and public donations poured in.  

Even the conference organisers are much less secretive than they used to be. Where once those involved would deny very existence of the event, these days an agenda and a list of delegates is released on an official website. And if this new openness comes in part from exasperation at the crazy claims that have been made down the years about Bilderberg, it must also reflect an understanding that in the 21st century secret meetings of highly influential people are bound to attract suspicion and deserve to attract scrutiny. If Bilderberg and similar gatherings have up to now been of interest only to an eccentric fringe of conspiracy theorists and "researchers", that is a media failure and not the fault of Alex Jones.

A banner draped over the security barrier outside the Bilderberg meetings. Photograph: Getty Images
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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.