Engaging our brains with Swindon Philosophical Society – Nick Cohen and Stefan Collini at Swindon Festival of Literature

10 May

On Monday, the Swindon Festival of Literature was encouraging me to walk or run. By Friday, they’re asking me to think too. What else do they want… blood?

The annual takeover of a LitFest night by Swindon Philosophical Society brings us two guest authors, whose books resonate with me for very different reasons.

Observer journalist Nick Cohen talks about censorship, and freedom of the press.

This is particularly pertinent to me (Chronicler Pete), because during my time as a local newspaper editor I was sued by an A-list celebrity (not allowed to talk about it), threatened with Contempt of Court (got away with it), issued with a D-Notice (if I recall, something about B52 bombers at RAF Fairford, and Iraqi air defence being alerted to sortie schedules by reading a weekly newspaper for the Cotswolds), and deemed in breach of the Geneva Convention (not for torturing cub reporters, but for using a red cross on a campaign logo to save our local hospital).

My staff and I were also threatened (on a fairly regular basis) by petty criminals whose nefarious exploits were duly reported when they were hauled up in front of the courts (we never caved in, but the fear of reprisal was always there).

Meanwhile, Stefan Collini, professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge, talks about the purpose of universities.

I still have a chip on my shoulder about not going to university. When I was 18 (1990) none of them offered degrees in journalism, and would-be reporters were sent to technical colleges to do a 36-week course in law, public affairs, shorthand and phone hacking (one of these is a lie). A couple of years later the first journalism degree was introduced. Grrr…

Anyway, Nick Cohen has written a book called Why You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom.

The age of freedom to which he refers is the age of the internet, and as he quickly acknowledges, whilst the internet has democratised journalism (anyone with a Twitter account is effectively a publisher, and Stephen Fry has more Twitter followers than The Independent has readers) those publishers are far from free.

He cites the case of Paul Chambers, who joked on Twitter that he would blow up Robin Hood Airport when it closed after heavy snow, and was convicted of sending a ‘menacing electronic communication’ (and lost two jobs) as a result.

He might have added Sally Bercow, Alan Davies and others for libelling Lord McAlpine after he was wrongly accused on Twitter of being a paedophile, or Peaches Geldof, who faced potential charges after tweeting the names of the two mothers whose babies were abused by a rock star.

Cohen speaks about three acknowledged pillars of censorship: the State, Religion (more of which in a moment), and Money. He asserts that we can say what we like about the Prime Minister in public (so long as it’s not libellous) without fear of consequence. But speak out about our employer (as HBOS whistleblower Paul Moore did for warning that his bank was taking excessive risks) and you face not only dismissal from your own job, but a potential black ball from every other employer in the industry.

Religion is an interesting one: it’s 25 years a fatwa was issued against the author Salman Rushdie following the publication of The Satanic Verses, but the incident that’s upset Cohen the most is Islam’s reaction to the so-called Danish Muhammad cartoons crisis (some Muslims were angry that a picture had been drawn of the prophet Muhammad, which they considered blasphemous) and – more importantly – the media’s reaction to that anger (no-one – not even Private Eye – had the nerve to republish the cartoons, fearing violent reprisals against correspondents here and abroad).

This brings Cohen to the fourth pillar of censorship, and the one no newspaper editor or proprietor will admit exists: fear.

Whether it’s fear of state intervention (the bizarre destruction of hard drives containing Snowden files by Guardian staff under the gaze of GCHQ officials), religious interference (as above), or the cost of defending – or in fact bringing – libel action at court, currently 125 times the European average (making legal redress the privilege of the rich), fear is perhaps the most effective form of censorship, because it’s intangible.

“The public image of journalists is one of rebels,” says Cohen. “But we are afraid. And we are afraid to admit we are afraid.”

Stefan Collini is not afraid of asking difficult questions, nor of the repercussions from his employers or colleagues.

His book – What are Universities For? – explores the public perception of higher education, and weighs it against the public expectation.

Although he wants to explore the purpose of universities, inevitably the discussion quickly turns to funding: should universities be funded to provide an education, or should undergraduates be offered a loan with which they can shop for an educational package?

He insists that a university education is about more than issuing students with the tools to do a specific job – rather, it expands their minds and gives them the ability to think around a problem, and argue, and anticipate.

He says that’s what employers want, and suggests that critics of this view (those who talk about the Real World) are “cloistered businessmen living in their ivory factories” – a clever joke that takes a second to register, but raises a collective laugh when it does.

Collini berates the fact that we think of a qualification simply in terms of the expected enhanced pay packet at the end.

He points out that there aren’t enough postgraduate jobs to offer every graduate a highly-paid position, then shocks his audience with a bit of research which suggests that while postgraduates who land well-paid jobs will be able to pay off their student loan quickly, and those who never reach an income of (currently) £21,000 a year will never have to pay back the loan, those university leavers caught in the middle may end up paying £150,000 against a £40,000 loan, because interest is charged at the rate of inflation plus three percent.

It’s interesting, if predictable, but Collini – the academic – never deviates from what is an academic argument and ultimately, therefore, overlooks the perspective of the typical undergraduate.

Sure, they hope a degree will land them a better job, but here – based on my own unscientific study of all the higher education students I have ever met – is What Universities Are Really For:

  • Expanding the distance between yourself and your parents, under whose yoke you have been living for the past 18 years.
  • Expanding your capacity to consume alcohol – in 36 weeks (one academic year) I progressed from half a larger top to 12 pints; imagine what I could have achieved in three years.
  • Expanding your mind… with illicit substances (easier to get on a university campus than anywhere else in the country, with the exception of behind the walls of a prison).
  • Expanding your tally of sexual experiences – you will never meet as many single and willing members of the opposite (or same, depending on preference) sex as you will at college or uni. Anyone who leaves university a virgin has failed, regardless of their degree classification.
  • Expanding your social network – forget the idiots you went to school with; your higher education class mates will be, by and large, like-minded individuals with whom you will stay in contact for life.
  • Expanding your wallet in the world of work is a distant sixth.

I believe, in scholarly writing, that’s known as an appendix.

Words by Peter Davison. Photos by Martin Hawes and Calyx Pictures.

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