University of Bristol Students' Union Richmond Building, 105 Queens Road, Bristol. England. UK. (Photo by: Andrew Michael/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

David Miller may be a loon, but sacking him would open a Pandora’s Box

Toby Young disagrees with Danny Finkelstein’s call for Miller’s sacking, saying that academic staff should be free to express whatever views they like within the law

I have little sympathy for David Miller, Professor of Political Sociology at Bristol, who’s under fire for anti-Semitism. As Danny Finkelstein pointed out in yesterday’s Times, he’s an “anti-Zionist” who belongs firmly in Jeremy Corbyn’s basket of deplorables:

Miller has a longstanding interest in conspiracy theories that is not confined to those involving Jews but he has, shall we say, a special interest in those that do. His most intensive area of study is the way that public narratives are distorted by powerful cabals. And he has reached the conclusion that the government of Israel and its advocates are among the most important creators and sponsors of these cabals.

There is, for example, a bizarre graphic he employs in lectures. It first appeared in a paper of which he was co-author, which purports to show the spidery network of connections behind opaque and secretive lobbying for Israel. The aim, said the authors, was to help locate people within the “power elite”.

The graphic uses a maze of dotted lines to link together a group of individuals (all but one of them Jewish) and Jewish communal bodies (including, for instance, the organisation that provides volunteers as security outside synagogue quiz suppers). At the top of the page is the Israeli government and at the bottom, the British Labour and Conservative parties.

Even for a wild theory, it’s a remarkably sloppy piece of work and its selection of individuals is idiosyncratic to say the least. One of the featured people is not linked to the Conservative Party despite the fact that he was once its chief executive. Another person I recognised as a head teacher who was a neighbour of my parents in Hendon and was married to my dentist.

Grossly offensive speech is unlawful, but nothing Miller has said meets that threshold

But I would stop short of calling for him to be fired, as Danny did – although Danny thinks he only crossed the line when he started attacking the Bristol University Jewish Society as being part of an organised Zionist campaign to censor critics of the state of Israel. Yes, what David Miller has said is offensive, but, contrary to the beliefs of the Merseyside Police, being offensive is not an offence. Grossly offensive speech is unlawful, but nothing Miller has said meets that threshold and nor could he be prosecuted for stirring up hatred under the Public Order Act 1986. My position is that no university should fire an academic for exercising their lawful right to free speech, particularly not a tenured professor.

There are numerous difficulties with placing limits on academic free speech that go beyond what’s lawful. For one thing, it empowers university administrators to decide what their academic staff can and can’t say and that, in turn, makes them targets for political activists and lobby groups. No sooner had the current controversy over David Miller erupted than the University of Bristol Islamic Society complained about the “islamophobia” of Steven Greer, a Bristol law professor, and started a petition calling for him to be fired. In light of this, Professor Hugh Brady, the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol, would find it difficult to fire Miller without firing Greer – and once he’s sacked the two of them, no doubt other student societies would start petitioning him to get rid of other “offensive” professors.

This double standard is endemic across the higher education sector

Of course, many English universities do impose speech restrictions on their academics that go far beyond the law – and we’ve gone to bat for quite a few of them that have crossed this extra-legal line at the Free Speech Union. Sometimes, as in the case of Cambridge, left-wingers like Priyamvada Gopal are safe from any negative consequences if what they say is lawful – that was the standard Cambridge invoked when it defended Gopal last year after she tweeted “white lives don’t matter” – while conservatives like Jordan Peterson are held to a higher standard. His visiting fellowship was withdrawn by the Cambridge Divinity School in 2019 because he doesn’t uphold the university’s “inclusive” principles, apparently. Our experience at the FSU has taught us that this double standard is endemic across the higher education sector. One of the curiosities of the David Miller case is that it’s so unusual for a left-wing professor to be targeted for cancellation.

If I was a vice-chancellor, I would find it a great comfort to be able to fall back on the “lawful” defence every time one of these controversies erupts – and Professor Brady has sort of done that, claiming the university’s hands are tied by employment law. If I was him, I would take a leaf out of Stephen Toope’s book at Cambridge and defend the right of all Bristol’s academic staff to express whatever views they like, however offensive some people might find them, provided they don’t break the law.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover