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Artillery Row

Is public health a protected belief?

A new case will decide if prohibitionism in the name of public health constitutes a philosophical belief under the Equality Act

Bizarre scenes are unfolding at the University of York where Professor Jim McCambridge claims that modern “public health” dogma is a protected belief under the Equality Act (2010). After a four year investigation into McCambridge’s treatment of three students, which finally ended in 2023, the university found him guilty of bullying and harassment. McCambridge has responded by taking the university to an employment tribunal where he claims that the idea that “public health needs to be protected from policy interference and associated interventions within science by the alcohol and tobacco industries, so that the integrity of science is preserved” is a philosophical belief that is protected under equalities legislation.

McCambridge further claims that the university’s past association with Professor Neil McKeganey put the health and safety of the public at risk. McKeganey is the director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research and has received research funding from tobacco and vaping companies. McCambridge emailed the university’s management to complain about McKeganey’s association with the university in 2016 and 2017. McCambridge believes that the views he expressed in those e-mails amounted to whistle-blowing and led to him being unfairly treated when he was investigated for bullying and harassment.

The details of the bullying and harassment investigation have not been made public and it is not clear if they are related to McCambridge’s beef with McKeganey. It is not even clear what McKeganey’s association with York University was. He was an external collaborator on a project to evaluate a scheme to get prisoners off drink and drugs, but never had tenure. It lasted three years and had nothing to do with tobacco, but if that was the only connection between McKeganey and the university, it would have been more than enough to make Jim McCambridge blow a fuse.

For McCambridge, the tax-and-ban approach to alcohol is not something about which reasonable people can disagree

McKeganey has previously accused McCambridge of practising “academic McCarthyism” and it is hard not to agree. McCambridge is one of countless academics to have drifted from sociology into “public health” and for the last decade has been mainly focused on the alcohol industry, which he holds in contempt, and the supposedly crafty ways in which it manipulates policy-making. Extremely prolific, he has become something of a neo-temperance attack dog, going after charities, think tanks or individuals that he regards as doing the booze industry’s dirty work. The standard template of a McCambridge study is to take a statement from an ideological opponent, find someone who disagrees with it, declare it to be a lie and then urge policy-makers not to listen to such people. For McCambridge, the tax-and-ban approach to alcohol is not something about which reasonable people can disagree. Those who cast doubt on it are manufacturing a “counterfeit scientific controversy” and should be barred from writing in a peer-reviewed journal

McCambridge has taken his behaviour a worrying step further at the employment tribunal by portraying McKeganey’s association with York University as a real and present danger to people’s health. His argument, as summarised by the judge, is that:

The impact of Mr [sic] McKeganey’s relationship with the University of York would be to impact adversely on the health of some unidentified people in society. This was explained in two ways: firstly, that Mr [sic] McKeganey’s association with the University would improve his credibility. Because he (allegedly) supports tobacco companies, an improvement in his credibility will add greater weight to any support he gives to tobacco companies, thereby increasing the risk that more people will smoke and thereby impact on the health of those (unidentified) people. Secondly, that an association with Mr [sic] McKeganey by the university would undermine their criticism of tobacco companies thereby increasing the risk that more people might smoke similarly presenting an increase risk to those unidentified people.

Leaving aside the question of whether the tacit endorsement of an obscure academic by York University is ever likely to influence an individual’s decision to start smoking, this takes no-platforming to a new level. The clear implication is that anyone who might inadvertently increase the chances of an unidentified, theoretical person to start smoking is a health and safety risk. Furthermore, anyone who fails to ostracise such a person is also a threat to public health. The same presumably applies to alcohol and any of the growing number of adult activities that are now considered to be “public health” issues. This is a recipe for blanket censorship and cancel culture on steroids. 

At a preliminary hearing last month, York University asked the judge to throw the case out on the basis that it has no reasonable prospect of success. The judge disagreed, saying “I do not say that the claimant has a good chance of successfully demonstrating this, merely that he has more than little reasonable prospects of success.” The case will therefore go ahead, although the judge noted that McCambridge “is likely to have [a] high degree of difficulty in establishing that any procedural defaults in any of the disciplinary or grievance processes were because of either his asserted philosophical belief or the alleged protected disclosure”. 

It will be interesting to see how McCambridge gets on with his insistence that his brand of academic witch-hunting is a protected philosophical belief, rather than mere opinion. Last week, the sociologist David Miller — who once moonlighted as a “public health” academicwon his case against unfair dismissal from the University of Bristol after a court ruled that his “anti-Zionist” views constituted a philosophical belief under the Equality Act. If claiming that Zionism is “inherently racist, imperialist and colonial” gets special protection under UK law, might McCambridge’s trenchant opinions be afforded a similar privilege?

In conclusion, abolish the Equality Act (2010).

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