PHOTO: GETTY
Show Hide image

Why is Nick Timothy’s Telegraph column on anti-Brexit billionaire George Soros so disturbing?

Within its coverage, the paper has seen fit to uncritically repeat a series of anti-Semitic conspiracies about Soros.

Today’s Telegraph column from Nick Timothy carries an account of a meeting between George Soros, the billionaire and funder of various liberal causes, and Conservative donors, and the theme continues on the paper's frontpage, where “Man who 'broke the Bank of England' backing secret plot to thwart Brexit” is the splash.

The problem is that the aim of Best for Britain, the Gina Miller-founded group that wants to stop Brexit, is no more secret (or indeed newsworthy) than the fact that you're reading this on the New Statesman. That Soros is one of those funding the anti-Brexit campaign is not news either, though the Telegraph's headline has provoked a disclosure of the exact sum – £400,000 – that Soros is putting towards the campaign. (He is by no means their main donor and the organisation is also pulling in not inconsiderable amounts from small donors.)

The reason that many find the Telegraph's treatment so disturbing is that Soros, who is Jewish, has been at the centre of a series of anti-Semitic conspiracies by the increasingly authoritarian governments in Poland, Hungary and Turkey – and the paper has seen fit to uncritically repeat those accusations in its write-up of the story. That Timothy was the author of that “citizens of nowhere” speech only adds to feeling among many that the original speech was a coded way of talking about “rootless cosmopolitans”; aka the Jewish people.

Timothy's column itself is a series of facts we already knew topped up with an interesting anecdote in the opener (Soros had some Tory donors over for dinner, and it didn't go well). The demands of a weekly politics column – speaking of which, here's mine – mean that everyone will have to do that from time to time. His target isn't Jewish people, but Conservative MPs thinking of allying with Best for Britain – he's trying to accuse them of being useful idiots for a Corbyn government. As with “citizens of nowhere”, while the offence he's caused is real and in my view understandable, the target he's aiming at is elsewhere.

But the bigger question for Timothy is this: why does he keep blundering into racially-charged rhetoric, and why he is so incapable of listening and displaying contrition? His response to the “citizens of the world” row was to declare that everyone who objected to it was simply making trouble for trouble's sake. On Twitter he is busily retweeting everyone who is defending him, including Eric Pickles, who argues that Timothy couldn't possibly be engaging in anti-Semitic behaviour because he is a “friend of Israel”.

Once more with feeling: one's support or opposition to the policies pursued by the state of Israel at any given time aren't relevant to whether or not you've said something anti-Semitic. Jackie Walker's Facebook post that Jews were responsible for the bulk of the slave trade wouldn't have been any less troubling if she'd written it while wearing a “Vote Netanyahu” sticker. Timothy's friendship towards the state of Israel doesn't change the fact that the invocation of Soros, and the Telegraph's overall treatment of the story, puts him in worrying company. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.