Things get frosty for Tiger Tim

 

From durham.academia.edu

 

The other day I discovered that my old alma mater, Peebles High School in the Scottish Borders, had a Wikipedia entry.  Near the end of it was a ‘notable alumni’ section.  I reacted with a disgruntled “Oh God, him,” when I saw listed among those notable alumni ‘Tim Luckhurst, journalist and academic’.

 

Minutes later, I headed over to the Guardian’s website to check the news headlines.  It seemed a mighty coincidence when I started reading a story under the headline DURHAM HEAD STEPS BACK AFTER CALLING STUDENTS ‘PATHETIC’ AT ROD LIDDLE EVENT and discovered that the head in question, the principal of Durham University’s South College, was none other than Tim Luckhurst – that distinguished journalistic and academic graduate mentioned in Peebles High School’s Wikipedia entry.

 

During the mid-to-late 1970s, Tim was a few years ahead of me at school.  He was a well-kent figure, lanky, curly-haired, lugubrious-faced and sloping around the place in a combat jacket and a T-shirt saying LEGALISE CANNABIS – in those permissive times at Peebles High you weren’t obliged to wear a school uniform.  To my mates and I he was known contemptuously  as ‘Chairman Mao’.  I think he spoke to me just once, at a careers evening being held in the school.  I was about to go into a classroom where the affable Atholl Innes, then editor of local newspaper the Peeblesshire News, was dispensing advice to young people who were interested in becoming journalists.  Out of that classroom emerged Tim and, to me, he declared emphatically, “Well, I know what I want to be!”

 

Probably Tim had already resolved to become a journalist and Atholl Innes had been preaching to the already-converted.  But I sometimes wonder if he hadn’t made up his mind until entering that classroom and his meeting with Athol Innes had been a moment of revelation – “Yes, newspapers,” Tim had cried, “that’s the life for me!”  If the latter is the case, I can only say, “Atholl…  You created a monster.”

 

Incidentally, that Tim had to attend a lowly comprehensive school like Peebles High, up in the windy wilds of North Britain, full of horrible little oiks like myself, still rankles with the man.  Writing for the Guardian in 2010 he quoted Ellen Wilkinson, Secretary of State for Education in the post-war British Labour government, as saying of her childhood in non-selective schooling in Manchester: “The top few pupils were intelligent and could mop up facts like blotting paper, but we were made to wait for the rest of the huge classes…  We wanted to stretch our minds but were merely a nuisance.”  Tim noted sourly, “Thirty years later I experienced comparable misery at my Scottish comprehensive.”

 

From the Peeblesshire News

 

I should point out that although it denied Tim the chance to stretch his fabulous mind and soak up facts like a sheet of super-absorbent blotting paper, Peebles High School must have done something for his education.  In fact, it was good enough to get him into Cambridge University.  At Cambridge, incidentally, according to one Luckhurst-bio I’ve found online, “…he played bass guitar in Tony Tiger and the Frosties.”  I know it’s wrong to judge bands by their names alone, but Tony Tiger and the Frosties sound like the most horrible thing to have strutted onstage on the Oxbridge music scene since the early 1970s, when a student band called the Ugly Rumours featured one Tony Blair as their frontman.

 

I suspect the disdain Tim feels for his alma mater in Peebles is mutual.  I recall several years back chatting to one of my old teachers, now a sweet little pensioner, when Tim’s name somehow cropped up in the conversation.  The teacher underwent a startling metamorphosis, hands becoming clenched and claw-like, face dark and scowling, and blurted wrathfully, “Tim is just an ARSEHOLE!”

 

During the 1980s and 1990s, Tim served as press officer for the Labour Party’s then-sizeable cabal of Scottish MPs, including Shadow Secretary State for Scotland Donald Dewar; stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate in Roxburgh and Berwickshire in a general election; and worked for the BBC.  I’d forgotten that the guy existed until February 2000, when he was announced as the new editor of my Dad’s favourite newspaper, Edinburgh’s venerable and respected Scotsman.  Actually, by then, the Scotsman was a lot less respected.  It’d been acquired by the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings Group and for several years had suffered under the crass stewardship of Andrew Neil, the Group’s editor-in-chief.  Tim lasted as Scotsman editor only until May that same year, when he was replaced by Rebecca Hardy, whom I knew from a previous phase of my life too – but that’s a story for another day.

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

In 2013, Tim and his old boss at the Scotsman, Andrew Neil, had a rammy on twitter.  Tim contradicted Neil on something and Neil replied, “And I made you Editor of the The Scotsman.  Most stupid decision ever.  But at least I fired you six days later.”  When Tim countered with, “Would you care to retract that statement, Andrew?  It might be wise,” Neil retorted, “Bring it on.  And let me pay to straighten your teeth.”  For the record, I’ll print what the Evening Standard said about the row: “…Professor Luckhurst was not ‘sacked after six days’ from the Scotsman, as Neil claims, but resigned due to ill health after four months.”  And I assume that, following the debacle of his involvement with GB News, Andrew Neil now considers giving Tim the Scotsman’s editorship only his second most stupid decision ever.

 

Following the Scotsman, Tim spent seven years as political editor of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail (which, with hindsight, was surely a good fit for him).  Then he entered academia with a job as Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent, and then joined Durham University in 2019.  Despite having been a one-time backroom operative with the Labour Party, his politics by this time had clearly shifted rightwards.  However, I’ll hazard a guess and say he views himself as a moderate, old-school Tory rather than a ranting, frothing, hard-right one.  From the occasional glances I’ve had at his twitter feed, he seems impressed neither by Brexit nor by the antics of Boris Johnson.

 

That said, his moderate Tory-ness stops at the English-Scottish border.  One step north of that border and his moderate Tory-ness changes to rabid Unionism.  He might once have worked for Donald Dewar, viewed as the ‘father’ of the Scottish devolution settlement and the devolved Scottish parliament, but by 2001 he was demanding in a Guardian opinion piece that Whitehall consider abolishing the parliament, Dewar’s baby: “Scotland needs Whitehall at least to threaten repeal.  To demand less in the present climate would be unpatriotic.”

 

That article was mild, though, compared with one he wrote for the New Statesman that same year.  Entitled SCOTLAND RETURNS TO THE DARK AGES, he used it to blame devolution for releasing a tsunami of evils like homophobia, sectarianism, misogyny, racism and, er, the banning of fox-hunting.  In the civilised days before devolution unleashed the Scots’ inner beastliness, he wrote, such things had been ‘diluted by the soothing balm of the British state’.  Strangely enough, that article is no longer available on the New Statesman’s website.

 

Meanwhile, his twitter feed has been punctuated by tone-deaf pronouncements on Scotland that surely only appeal to a minority of ultra-Unionist Scots for whom 1690 is as important a year as 1707.  I remember him expressing horror at the Scottish government punting a few million pounds towards the promotion of the Gaelic language; or retweeting a video of Ross Thomson – the demented hard-Brexiting, Boris-worshipping Tory ex-MP for Aberdeen South – professing his undying love for the United Kingdom amid a thicket of Union Jacks.  I wonder what will happen if Scotland becomes independent.  Poor Tim’s head will probably explode like the guy’s head did at the beginning of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981).

 

But onto 2021.  Tim landed himself in hot water when, as head of South College at Durham University, he invited his old mate and colleague Rod Liddle to give a speech at a ‘college formal’ event in early December.  He and Liddle have known each other since 1985 and worked together on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.  Indeed, in 2010, Tim wrote a Guardian piece in support of Liddle’s candidacy to become editor of the Independent newspaper.  This was a prospect that alarmed many readers of the reasonably-liberal Independent because Liddle had earned himself a reputation for being misogynistic, homophobic and racist.  Pretty much all the things Tim once accused the Scottish parliament of being.

 

From twitter.com/sunapology

 

Liddle is a ‘columnist’ – i.e., gobshite-provocateur – with the Spectator, Sun and Sunday Times and even by the standards of the gobshite-provocateurs that infest the pages of Britain’s mostly right-wing press, forever seeking new ways to upset people, the charge-sheet against him is disproportionately long.  Here’s just a few of his low-points.  He was a pig towards Labour politician Harriet Harman.  (“So – Harriet Harman, then.  Would you?  I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober.”  In his Guardian puff-piece about Liddle, Tim euphemistically described this remark as ‘not gallant’.)  He mocked another female Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, for speaking out about verbal abuse and humiliation she’d received from a former partner – “the sobbing and oppressed Rosie ‘MeToo’ Duffield”.  He’s complained about the Conservative party not being Islamophobic enough and suggested that elections be held on days when “Muslims are forbidden to do anything on pain of hell.”  He’s raved about “black savages”.  He’s dismissed Welsh language activists as “miserable, seaweed-munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill-tribes”.  He’s explained: “…the one thing that stopped me from being a teacher was that I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids.”  And so on, and so forth.

 

When Liddle stood up at the event and launched into a speech filled with his predictably reactionary schtick – jokes about sex workers, comments about trans-women having ‘long, dangling penises’ and the charming hypothesis that British colonialism never did anyone any harm because its subjects weren’t intelligent anyway – members of the student audience started walking out.  Tim, tigerish about defending everyone’s right to freedom of expression, and everyone’s right to have Rod Liddle inflicted upon them, reportedly shouted at them that they were ‘pathetic’.  There’s also video footage in circulation on twitter showing Tim arguing with students after the event.  Meanwhile, his wife Dorothy Luckhurst, who might have been slightly over-refreshed at the time, can be seen shouting at those students things like, “I think you are an arse…  Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse…!  Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse…!”

 

From twitter.com/RDuskedd

 

Did Tim honestly believe that he could invite Liddle onto a university campus and there wouldn’t be trouble?  He must be a bit thick.  Or maybe he was deliberately trying to stir up a hornet’s nest – which, if that was the case, he succeeded in doing.

 

I’m actually not a fan of censorship by the left, in the form of ‘no-platforming’, ‘cancel culture’ or whatever you want to call it.  That’s because I’d always assumed censorship was an instrument used by the right and there was no excuse for the left to use it too.  But there’s a time and place for debates where extreme views, offensive to many, can be aired and argued with.  And the event at South College was clearly neither the time nor place.  For one thing, the attendees had paid ten pounds a head to be there and hadn’t been warned in advance that the entertainment included Rod ‘shag the kids’ Liddle.  If I’d been present, I’d have walked out too when Liddle started spewing his crap at me – just as I’d have done in the 1980s or 1990s if I’d bought a ticket for what I expected to be a mild-mannered comedy night and then Bernard Manning had lumbered on stage and started cracking jokes about ‘darkies’ and ‘poofs’ and ‘Paddies’.  And incidentally, isn’t walking out a legitimate form of expression in itself?  Especially when, as with Liddle’s audience, you don’t have access to a microphone.

 

It’s fascinating how Tim, and the whole media / political establishment that he’s a member of, claim to be champions of free speech when there’s a danger that people might stop listening to right-wing establishment opinions.  Yet it’s pretty difficult in Britain, if you interact with the media in anyway at all, not to be assailed relentlessly by right-wing opinions.  There’s the front-page headlines of reactionary rags like the Sun, Mail and Express screaming at you daily from the newsstands.  There’s the now completely cowed and broken-backed BBC parroting the right-wing agenda of the press when it does its morning newspaper round-ups.  There’s a seemingly endless parade of right-wing pundits from Nigel Farage downwards (and Farage is pretty far down already) getting platforms on TV news channels.  If Tim and co. are so desperate about promoting freedom of expression and making people experience views they wouldn’t otherwise hear, shouldn’t they be trying to expose hardcore readers of the Sun, Mail and Express to the opinions of Owen Jones, George Monbiot, Laurie Penny, John Pilger, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky?  Well, they should, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Currently, following a storm of Liddle-related protests, Tim has been parked on the naughty step at Durham University while his employers decide what action, if any, should be taken against him.  But even if he’s shown the door, I’m sure that a lucrative future awaits him at one of Britain’s countless right-wing news and / or opinion outlets, which will take him to its bosom as a martyr to the cause of freedom of (right-wing) speech and as a blameless victim of horrible, lefty, woke, cancel culture.

 

Now that his old nemesis Andrew Neil has left the building, I could even see him ending up at GB News.  He could form a double act with Neil Oliver, where they both whinge and gurn about the ghastliness of modern-day Scotland under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and how the Scots need their uncivilised natures to be ‘diluted by the soothing balm of the British state’.  Meanwhile, Tim’s better half could get a gig there as well.  Perhaps Talking Pints with Nigel Farage?

Oliver twit

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

I’m fairly left-wing in my outlook.  But I’m not a fan of recent strategies like cancel culture and no-platforming as ways of dealing with people who express reactionary and offensive opinions.

 

Partly this is because proponents of cancelling and de-platforming people seem to assume that humanity can be divided neatly into good and bad, with no possibility of various shades of goodness and badness existing in between.  I doubt, though, if any human being can honestly claim that they’ve never said or done anything that, later on, they regretted.  A case in point is novelist Damian Barr, who got Lady Emma Nicholson removed from the vice-presidency of the Booker Prize due to her hostility towards gay rights, which saw her voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords in 2013.  Embarrassingly, it then emerged that Barr himself was guilty of tweeting nasty stuff about transsexuals.

 

Also, I was in favour of letting people with obnoxious opinions get up in public and spout those opinions because of the ‘give-them-enough-rope-and-they’ll-hang-themselves’ argument.  Allow them a platform, allow them to speak, and people will realise what offensive tossers they are.  However, in today’s media landscape, where Internet algorithms mean folk can spend their entire lives living in online echo-chambers where they hear nothing but their own political viewpoints and have their own prejudices reinforced, I’m less sure of that argument’s validity.

 

And the dichotomies of cancel culture and no-platforming seemingly leave no room for the potential of human beings to change and improve.  I’m from Northern Ireland and the fact that Northern Ireland in 2020 is a better (if still considerably less than perfect) place than it was in, say, 1973 is in part because during the peace process people had to make a leap of faith and accept that characters who’d been banged up in prison for doing some very bad stuff had mended their ways and were worth trusting and negotiating with.   I’m thinking of the likes of David Ervine, who was put in the Maze Prison for being in possession of explosives and intent to endanger life but who, when he died in 2007, was hailed by Tony Blair as “a persistent and intelligent persuader for cross-community partnership.”

 

That said, however, I’m not feeling much sympathy for historian David Starkey, who in a recent interview on Reasoned UK, a platform set up by right-wing foetus Daren Grimes, came out with such jaw-droppers as “Slavery was not genocide.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?  You know, an awful lot of them survived.”  During the ensuing furore, Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College and Canterbury Christ Church University cut their ties with Starkey and HarperCollins announced that it wouldn’t publish him anymore.  Even if Starkey hadn’t expressed himself in such racist terms, I still wouldn’t allow the guy any academic responsibilities because his reasoning suggests that his head’s full of mince.  I mean, there are quite a few Jews around these days too.  But that doesn’t mean they weren’t subjected to genocide in the past, does it?

 

It only surprises me that it took Starkey’s horribleness so long to spark an outcry like this, for he’s been farting out offensive and upsetting comments for years on the BBC and in various newspapers.  In 2011, for instance, he blamed the London riots on whites who had “become black.  A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture…”  In 2009, he dismissed Ireland, Scotland and Wales as ‘feeble little countries’ and in 2015 likened the Scottish National Party to the Nazis and the St Andrew’s Cross to the swastika.

 

From twitter.com/davidstarkeyCBE 

 

But it isn’t Starkey whom I want to grump about here.  It’s another famous tele-historian, Scotsman Neil Oliver (although technically he’s an archaeologist).  He’s best-known for his appearances from 2006 to 2010 in the BBC show Coast, in which he tramped around the shores of Britain talking about its natural and human history whilst looking shaggy-haired and hippy-esque, windswept and Celtic, rather like Bono during his Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum period.  Oliver has suffered collateral damage from the Starkey debacle.  He was criticised for tweeting Darren Grimes shortly before the catastrophic interview and saying of Starkey, “Tell him I love him, by all means.”  Since then, Oliver has nailed his colours to the mast by retweeting sentiments from right-wing reprobates like Douglas Murray, Laurence Fox and Toby Young, who’s opined that Britain is now in the throes of a ‘Maoist Cultural Revolution’.  (That’s right, Tobe.  Britain, with its Maoist prime minister, Boris Johnson; with its Maoist media publications, like the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and Spectator; and with its Maoist media moguls, like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere.)

 

Then the other day, Oliver announced that in September this year he would step down from the presidency of the National Trust for Scotland.  The NTS was clearly uncomfortable with Oliver’s association with Starkey and had just issued a statement refuting accusations that their president supported Starkey’s views.  For the record, I should say that while Oliver’s politics frequently get up my nose, I don’t believe he’s a racist like Starkey.

 

I find it peculiar that the NTS made Oliver its president to begin with because it must have alienated a lot of people whom the organisation depends on for support.  A staunch red-white-and-blue British unionist down to the split ends of his flowing tresses, Oliver has never made any bones about his disdain for the Scottish National Party – although unlike his pal Starkey, I don’t think he’s ever likened them to Nazis.  In 2017, the year he became NTS president and while he was filming a programme in New Zealand, he wrote a piece for the Sunday Times with the title, “In New Zealand, I’ve put enough distance between me and the SNP.”  Which was not the most logical thing to say, given that New Zealand is a successful independent country of five million people, which is exactly what the SNP aspire to for Scotland.  In early 2020, he wrote in the Times of Scotland’s SNP government: “It’s embarrassing.  I think of other nations looking at us and our shenanigans, and shudder with humiliation by association.”  This vitriol seems at odds with what Oliver sanctimoniously tweeted two months earlier, on the eve of the December 2019 British general election: “Whatever happens tomorrow, we will still be the same individuals with the same neighbours, living the same lives.  Nothing will have changed, not one jot.  Peace be with you.”

 

Presumably, a good number of people in Scotland who are sufficiently interested in Scottish culture and history to pay for NTS membership and donate to it are also people who believe that Scotland should be an independent country again.  So by appointing President Oliver, the NTS inadvertently flipped those people the middle finger.  If I’m giving money to a cause that suddenly adopts as its figurehead someone who’s very publicly slagged off people like me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to withdraw my patronage.

 

From twitter.com/N T S

 

Meanwhile, soon after British protests in support of the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement resulted in the statue of notorious Bristol slaver Edward Colston being pulled down and chucked into nearby Bristol Harbour,  Oliver appeared on television and contributed his tuppence worth.  For a worrying moment, I actually found myself in agreement with the guy.  As he pointed out: “I’m using a smartphone to take part in this conversation…  And I know that the cobalt that’s within the battery of my phone and in my laptop computer has almost certainly been mined by a child slave in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  And the people who were taking those videos, are taking videos of statues being destroyed…  the people holding those phones were probably wearing clothes that had been made in sweatshops in other parts of the world by other living slaves.  If this is to be a coming-to-terms with slavery, then I would deal with the plight of slaves who are alive today…”

 

But just before I punched my fist in the air and shouted, “Yeah, right on, Neil!  Smash this globalist capitalist system now!” the hairy bugger went and ruined it.  He veered off into a reactionary rant about the protests possibly being “an attempt by anarchists and communists to eat into the built fabric of Britain and thereby to bring down British society.”

 

In other words, Oliver’s argument about modern-day child slaves was just a piece of whataboutery.  He was angry that Colston’s statue got toppled and thrown into the drink, even though Colston’s involvement with notorious slave-traders the Royal African Company saw an estimated 84,000 Africans shipped as slaves across the Atlantic, with 19,000 of them dying en route. So to obfuscate the issue of Colston’s villainy, he introduced the child-slaves of the DRC into the conversation.  Yes, child-slaves in 2020!  What about them?

 

Actually, Neil, what about them?  Is Boris Johnson and the rest of the gang in charge of the British establishment, which you seem so enamoured with, going to take action against international child slavery anytime soon?  I doubt it.

 

The irony is that the assault on Colston’s statue, which so offended Oliver, a supposed historian, has actually made a lot of people more aware of history.  That includes me.  For example, soon afterwards, someone on social media suggested removing the statue of Henry Dundas from its column in St Andrew Square in Edinburgh, on account of Dundas being the man who delayed the abolition of Britain’s slave trade by a decade-and-a-half.  They also asked whose statue might be put on the column as a replacement.  The suggestions on the following thread included names such as Bessie Watson, Jane Haining and Eliza Wigham – whom I had to look up on Wikipedia, because until that point I didn’t know anything about them.  (All women, incidentally.  Women don’t get much mention in traditional accounts of Scottish history.)

 

But my concept of history seems to be anathema to Neil Oliver and his mate David Starkey, who see it as a fixed and immutable thing, like lava that spewed out of the great volcano of events and immediately solidified and hardened – becoming a giant monument to be stared at and admired and worshipped, with no room for re-interpretation or re-evaluation.  That’s what history is, end of.

 

This strikes me as an ignorant viewpoint because if we accept history as set-in-stone, we ignore not just possibilities for subjective revision but possibilities for objective revision of it too because, with progress, our science and scholarship for examining the past becomes better.  If we didn’t revise our understanding of history from time to time, we’d still be stuck with silly and antiquated notions like, for instance, the Scots being descendants of Scota, daughter of Moses’s Pharaoh, and Geythelos, King of Greece.

 

But the likes of Oliver and Starkey have no interest in history as a fluid, changing, reviewable thing.  No, they’re the contented curators of the dusty, fusty and preserved-in-aspic Museum, or Mausoleum, of Establishment British history.  Then again, I suppose it pays their wages.

 

From commons.wikipedia.org / © William Avery