The short-lived appointment of Toby Young to a board in the Office of Students was an interesting scandal to open 2018. It raised a number of pointed issues, from accusations of cronyism - Jo Johnson is the brother of Boris, who once edited Young’s current publication, The Spectator - to questions of Young’s limited experience in the education sector. Shortly after his arrival on the board, Young threw in the towel and stepped down.
One interesting thing to consider is the problem of being held to statements made years beforehand. Your history is publicly preserved on the web, exhibited in a museum to which access is free and unlimited. People can dig up that dodgy thing you said several years ago, when you had your eye on something else or weren’t thinking properly, and use it against you.
While the Orwell comparisons are asinine, it’s still a scary prospect that your distant past can be thrown in your face whenever the public mood turns against you. But to me the most striking element of the saga can be found in Young’s announcement that he would leave his post, published in The Spectator.
It was his description of his old life as a “journalistic provocateur” that caught my eye. Where had I heard that before? I remembered that I had once quoted a defence of the disgraced Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos in an article supporting Twitter’s decision to boot him. Some said Twitter was showing its true political colours: Yiannopoulos was a censored conservative “provocateur”.
What is a provocateur? It seems to be an occupation in which you are able to get away with anything. If you listen to Yiannopoulos and co. they’ll tell you that provocateurs to be there to put the cat amongst the pigeons; to put forward ideas with gusto, to challenge the status quo, to rile the powerful; above all, to make us think. Provocateurs provoke thought and start discussions.
When Toby Young reflects on his idle remarks on the breasts of women in parliament and on television, he likes to think of himself as a “journalistic provocateur”. That’s what provocateurs really do: make strange, stupid comments that serve no purpose other than winding people up.
Self-describing provocateurs like to think of themselves as defenders of free expression. Their uncouth remarks and unlettered arguments are in fact powerful advances of free speech. We simply get stuck on the words themselves and forget to recognise their heroic service in the name of Enlightenment values.
But the self-proclaimed provocateurs do nothing of the sort. They don’t put forward ideas; they intend to be tasteless, pointless and shameless, whenever and wherever they can. Never mind how the fallout ends; getting a reaction is all that is needed for them to have done their job.
The extent to which these individuals can come out with nonsense and insults without a comeuppance is startling. When the heat really is on them, all they need to say is “But I was being a provocateur,” and all is forgiven. Can Toby Young talk publicly about the size of a pregnant fellow TV presenter’s breasts or about having his “dick up” someone’s “arse” and reasonably claim he was just prompting debate? No - so why do we put up with it?
There was much opposition to the appointment of the “ideal man for the job”. But it isn’t public anger that brings them down; provocateurs curse themselves. Young laid the foundations for his rise, but also laid the gunpowder and fuse for his fall. He attempted to take a serious position, but his years of stupidity denied him the role. The problem with spending so much time being a nuisance means that people will not believe a change of heart is genuine.
Young is not alone. After his remarks on pederasty were uncovered, Yiannopoulos was discredited. Katie Hopkins’s call for a “final solution” after the Manchester terror attacks ended her tenure on LBC. If you decide to be a provocateur, you sacrifice the chance to be taken seriously when you decide to grow up.
As they lose our attention and lose themselves their jobs, provocateurs will realise that it’s better to provoke discussion, not others, and we’ll all be better for it.