No sacred cows

My advice for the next ‘free speech champion’

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

I was delighted to hear the government plans to appoint a ‘free speech champion’ to the board of the Office for Students. His or her responsibility will be to make sure universities in England and Wales do everything that is reasonably practicable to uphold freedom of speech within the law, including preventing external speakers from being no-platformed by student activists. This legal duty has been on the statute books since 1986, but there is no enforcement mechanism. That’s why this announcement is so important. The new free speech tsar will have the power to fine universities that don’t uphold the law.

Theresa May’s government took a dummy run at this when it appointed me to the board of the Office for Students in 2018. I wasn’t billed as a free speech champion, but the minister who oversaw my appointment — Jo Johnson — made it clear that my track record of defending freedom of expression was why he wanted me.

Unfortunately, my appointment was derailed after the combined forces of the regressive left, including numerous woke academics who believe free speech is an ‘alt right’ hobby horse, started petitioning the government to change its mind. I mean that literally. A petition on calling for the Prime Minister to sack me got more than 220,000 signatures. In the course of prosecuting their case, my detractors trawled through everything I’d ever said or written, dating back more than 30 years, looking for evidence that I was an unsuitable person to serve in public office. At one point, the ten most searched-for articles in The Spectator’s digital archive dating back to 1828 were all by me, as the offence archaeologists went about their work. Needless to say, it didn’t take them long to strike gold. Someone found an article I’d written in 2001 headlined: ‘Confessions of a porn addict.’

The sleuth who’d found this bragged about it on social media and hours later the Evening Standard ran a story: ‘New pressure on Theresa May to sack “porn addict” Toby Young from watchdog role.’ I naively thought this couldn’t possibly damage me — it was a self-deprecating piece about trying to watch a late-night show on a satellite channel called Men & Motors without Caroline finding out — but the Timeswent big on the story the following day: ‘“Porn addict” Toby Young fights to keep role as student watchdog.’

That wasn’t the only embarrassing thing the online metal detectorists dug up, and when Theresa May appeared on The Andrew Marr Show at the end of that week, her comms chief, Robbie Gibb, had the un-enviable task of reading out to her some of my more sophomoric tweets, in case she was asked about them. (Little wonder he got a knighthood in May’s lavender list.) When Marr did indeed put her on the spot, she backed me up, saying she was prepared to overlook these past indiscretions provided I behaved myself from now on. But that line didn’t hold.

The turning point came two days later when Dawn Butler tabled an ‘urgent question’ about me in the House of Commons and poor Jo Johnson had to take the flak as dozens of MPs lined up to denounce me, including a handful of Tories. (Thanks a lot, Sarah Wollaston.) After that, whatever support I had in Downing Street began to drain away and when Jo told me that other members of the board were threatening to resign if I didn’t get booted off, I had no choice but to fall on my sword.

So my advice to whoever is tapped up to be the government’s ‘free speech champion’ is first to cleanse the internet of anything the enemies of free speech can dig up and use against you — so delete all your social media accounts, for a start. And second, tell Downing Street about all the skeletons in your closet before your appointment is announced and get a cast-iron guarantee from Boris that he will stand by you no matter how many people call for your head. Unless you can get that pledge, preferably in writing, don’t do it.

On the plus side, Boris was one of the few prominent Conservatives to defend me three years ago. ‘Ridiculous outcry over Toby Young,’ he tweeted. ‘He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for the job.’

My nominee for the new role is Brendan O’Neill. True, he was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist party, but he’s never written about porn for The Spectator and he doesn’t have a Twitter account. Should be a shoo-in.

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