THE BLOG
09/01/2018 16:44 GMT | Updated 09/01/2018 16:44 GMT

The Toby Young Saga

Mr. Young and his supporters argue that the social media attention that has surrounded his past opinions was unjustified. Of course it was

Quick reminder: what did he do?

A loaded question. On the one hand, Mr. Young has had a varied career. He started as a co-founder of a magazine, then worked for Vanity Fair and wrote a book. In 2011, he established the West London Free School (WLFS) and set up multiple state schools. It was largely on this basis that Mr. Young was appointed to the Office for Students (OfS).

On the other hand (and in his own words) as a “journalistic provocateur” he has said things that were “either ill-judged or just plain wrong”. Perhaps an understatement. His comments range from repeatedly reducing women to sexual objects, to attacking minorities. For a helpful summary, see this article on HuffPost.

For the Defence

The defence that Mr. Young - and supporters such as Mr. Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science who fielded an impressive 45 minutes of questions from across the House of Commons - picked was that this was ‘all in the past’.

There are two reasons that this is a weak defence. Firstly, it does nothing to lessen the awful responsibility that you will bear for encouraging persecution for the minorities you have attacked, and for promulgating sexism. Because those statements were shared, and liked, and diffused, and used against people in harmful ways. This is the responsibility we all carry for every statement we make on social media. In short, the defence is not exculpatory.

Secondly, Mr. Young disavowed the statements as being in the past, only after being challenged on them. Rather than addressing them, he deleted tens of thousands of tweets. Hardly the actions of a man who has had a change of heart.

But was the social media angst a step too far?

Brendon O’Neill writing on Medium argued that it was a mob composed of “time-rich offence-takers” that dragged Mr. Young down. For Mr. Jo Johnson, it was the “armchair critics”. And in Mr. Young’s own words, the last seven days has resulted in a “caricature” drawn “particularly on social media” where the “actual objections” are “feeble”. Leaving aside the concerning realisation that Mr. Young does not see his tweets as valid objections to his suitability to the role on the OfS panel, this anger at the general public is puzzling.

What we do in life echoes in eternity, said Maximus in Gladiator. Maybe if he had been born in the 21st century he would have adapted, and instead pointed out that what you do on social media echoes for eternity. What you type in a fit of rage can be forgiven; but social media offers opportunities to delete, apologise, and post clarifications. Over and over, this opportunity was not taken by Mr. Young. Why, then, is it wrong to point to his Twitter feed as evidence of his opinions?

Indeed, I would go further and argue that only by treating provocative, insensitive, and harmful messages on social media by those in the public eye with zero tolerance do we teach the younger generations of the very real nature of online trolling and abuse.

The fact that there were more voices calling for Mr. Young to go on the basis of his opinions, than defended him because of his record, is evidence that people - sometimes - value principle above policy. That’s not such a bad thing. And though it might surprise some, it should be celebrated rather than ridiculed. It is a great thing for democracy and accountability to be able to have this level of engagement between the people and the government.

Mr. Young states that he is passionate about education. As such, I am sure that he will continue to work for the improvement of the system. But there is nothing wrong in doing this as a private individual, and not as a public figure. Because to be a public figure you have to hold the public trust. It is a good thing that today’s society no longer trusts those who hold certain opinions.