Academics have accused the Daily Mail of attempting to censor free speech after the tabloid attacked “Remainer universities” in a cutting front page take-down of UK lecturers’ so-called “anti-Brexit bias”.
After Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris - a staunch Brexiteer - was condemned earlier this week over a “chilling” letter he wrote to universities asking for the names of academics teaching about Brexit, the right-wing paper today suggested it is in fact pro-EU lecturers leaving students afraid to speak their minds on campus.
According to the tabloid, professors have been caught “doling out pro-EU pamphlets” and inviting students to Open Britain meetings, and one academic allegedly compared supporting Brexit to backing the Nazis after seeing an undergraduate at a pro-Leave stall ahead of the Referendum.
Referencing the backlash faced by Heaton-Harris over his enquiries, the newspaper said that “revelations of anti-Brexit bias” at universities showed that the Conservative politician was “well within his rights to ask what is happening in higher education”.
The Daily Mail asked students who had heard “anti-Brexit bias” on campus to get in touch, while in a separate article the paper also profiled 14 Oxford and Cambridge University leaders, asking: “Just why is every new Oxbridge head a leftie?”
A number of academics have furiously hit back at the articles, with one lecturer slamming it as a “witch hunt”.
Professor Thom Brooks, dean of Durham University’s law school, called the story “dog whistle politics at its worst”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Brooks said: “It shows how badly Brexit negotiations are going that any kind of criticism of how things are is now being treated as treason.”
Citing the newspaper’s now infamous splash after the High Court ruled that Parliament - not the Prime Minister - would need to trigger article 50, the law and government professor said: “It might as well have said ‘enemies of the people’ on the front page.”
“They went to only a handful of universities across the country and could find one, sometimes two, one-off instances of someone doing something legally-protected, perfectly okay, but that the Daily Mail doesn’t like,” Brooks continued.
“Scouring the country, looking under every rock, going behind every tree and looking behind every book in the library and that’s the best that they can do?
“There’s nothing in their piece showing systematic abuse of lecturers brain-washing students in the classroom about what they have to read and are assessed on.”
He added: “It’s shameful stuff. It will rightly strike a lot of people as not only nonsense, but offensive.”
Meanwhile, Professor Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the LSE, said students come to UK universities from all over the world “because we uphold academic freedoms and free speech”.
“They do not come to a university system where politicians can determine the curriculum or tell people what they can or cannot say,” he said.
“There is no evidence of academics campaigning in their lectures or in the classroom.
“Like any other citizen, academics must be free to campaign in the outside world on issues that concern them, but there is no evidence of academics forcing opinions or intimidating students and I would challenge evidence to be cited.”
But responding to these comments, a spokesperson for the Daily Mail denied that the article challenged academic freedoms, claiming the paper was “deeply concerned” this freedom was under threat, with universities “falling into the grip of left-liberal consensus”.
However, the article has already triggered a significant backlash on social media, with some suggesting the article marks the “beginning of a slippery slope”:
In a full statement, a spokesman for the Daily Mail told HuffPost UK: “Far from ‘challenging academic freedom’, the Daily Mail is deeply concerned this freedom is under threat from universities falling into the grip of left-liberal consensus thinking, enforced by profoundly illiberal policies such as ‘no-platforming’.”
They continued: “As the Mail’s leader this morning said: ‘The Mail has no objection to acquainting students with Left-wing or pro-EU ideas. But if these are all they hear, doesn’t this subvert the whole purpose of a university?’”