I suppose it was always going to happen eventually given my trenchant opinions on pretty much everything, but this week I have at long last joined the ranks of the ‘no-platformed’ – by no less an august body than the Royal College of General Practitioners.
My crime? ‘Some of the opinions expressed on [my] social media feed’ and, specifically, a three year old tweet about Enoch Powell, which left the medical body ‘no choice’ but to rescind an invitation for me to speak.
Yes, yes, what on earth was I thinking, tweeting about Enoch Powell and then expecting ever to be received in polite society ever again? Lesson learned, a tad belatedly. But it seems that my punishment must be delivered to assuage the gods of the Twitter offence archaeologists.
I had been invited to attend the RCGP’s annual conference to join a panel of guests for a Question Time-style discussion of the ‘hot healthcare topics of the day’ in Liverpool this Autumn. Unfortunately this news did not go down well with a small minority of GPs, one of whom launched a petition demanding that RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard rescind my invitation or face mass resignations and boycotts.
In his petition, Dr Alan Woodall explained: ‘This person has expressed views that are highly controversial regarding immigration and expressed that she could not see anything in the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that [Powell] had got wrong… We GPs… feel inclusion of a person who holds such views being invited to speak to conference is an insult to the thousands of international doctors who have come to work as GPs in the NHS.’ Evidently, Dr Woodall is not aware that Enoch Powell, in his capacity as a Health Minister, introduced the policy of recruiting doctors and nurses from overseas.
Another GP, Dr Tehseen Khan, also wrote an article in Pulse Today, the medical magazine, threatening to leave the RCGP if I spoke at the conference and described me as an ‘inflammatory’ journalist and ‘someone who defends fascism’. That escalated quickly, didn’t it?
So what views did I express that so offended the hundreds of doctors who have now signed up to the petition denouncing me?
This is the tweet I posted as part of a Twitter conversation one evening in September 2016: “fair point. I’m not defending Powell, I just don’t see anything in the Rivers speech that he got wrong.”
fair point. I'm not defending Powell, I just don't see anything in the Rivers speech that he got wrong.
— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) September 12, 2016
Yes, from a cursory glance, I can absolutely see why someone could view that tweet as endorsing every sentiment expressed in Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech but I had, perhaps foolishly, thought that my statement that ‘I’m not defending Powell’ would suffice to make my more qualified position clear.
What point was I seeking to make? I don’t claim to be an authority on Powell or his views (then or now) but as a subsequent tweet later explained, I was commenting on the accuracy of his predictions rather than making a moral judgement endorsing his views.
Certainly some of his language about ethnic minority immigrants was nasty. However, I understood – perhaps incorrectly – that Powell’s main point in his Rivers speech was about the need to stem mass immigration because the failure of some new arrivals to integrate would lead to racial tensions in England’s cities. This undoubtedly did happen and, arguably, is still happening 50 years later.
Powell’s predictions about immigration numbers were dismissed as fear mongering at the time. In fact, they ended up being rather on the low side. That is what I was referring to in my offending tweet.
In another tweet in the same conversation, I wrote that ‘Powell was not a racist’ because he, on many occasions, denied viewing whites as superior to any other race. I also noted that it was bizarre that Tony Blair should have paid such warm tributes to Powell after his death in 1998, calling him ‘one of the great figures of 20th century British politics’, if he believed him to be racist.
In short, my comments about Powell were not part of a lengthy, well-researched article but a hastily written social media exchange. The Twitter offence archaeologists see these things differently, though.
After initially responding to the petition by ‘strongly condemning’ my tweet but insisting that conference speakers ‘do not necessarily’ reflect the RCGP’s views, the College chair has now decided to give in to the petitioners. Whether this is because they fear the potential loss of £300,000 in fees from terminated memberships or simply being associated with me, I don’t know. Probably a bit of both.
Professor Stokes-Lampard wrote to me that, given the ‘considerable number of objections’ to my invitation, it had ‘left the College with no option but to rescind the invitation’. She then added: ‘We believe and uphold the principles of free speech… however, I cannot ignore the strength of feeling among my own membership.’
Clearly the RCGP did have other options and clearly it doesn’t uphold the principles of free speech after all. If they did, they probably would have contacted me to ask for my side of the story before deciding to rescind the invitation.
I hold my hands up to having dashed off a tweet about a subject I knew little about. But it is patently ridiculous that a random Twitter conversation from 2016 should be treated as irrefutable evidence that I am a ‘fascist’ whose mere presence on a panel would be an insult to all right-thinking people.
I can’t be sure, of course, but I wonder if the doctors claiming to be so offended by my tweets would even care what I’d written about Powell if I wasn’t a prominent Brexiteer. It came as no surprise to learn that Dr Alan Woodall, who launched the petition, is a fanatical Remain campaigner, with the hashtags #FBPE and #PeoplesVote beside his Twitter name.
Why does this matter? Well, Dr Woodall is a Labour Party member who tweeted that Leave-backing MPs are ‘thinly-disguised racists’; that Remain voters are being ‘held hostage’; are an ‘oppressed population’; and that prominent Leave campaigners, including Priti Patel, are ‘the blond brownshirt brigade’.
He even tweeted the Health Secretary Matt Hancock to say he would emigrate if we left the EU with no deal, adding: ‘I’m not living in this racist shit-hole one day longer.’
He sounds delightful, doesn’t he? I just hope none of Dr Woodall’s patients is ever foolhardy enough to express any pro-Brexit sympathies during a consultation in his surgery.
Equally unsurprising, the author of the Pulse Today article, Dr Khan, has also tweeted about his support of Jeremy Corbyn.
Bizarrely, though, despite many tweets from Dr Woodall in recent days expressing his concerns about my supposedly unacceptable views, he appears to have not found the time to even mention the official EHRC investigation into systemic anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.
Some of us have such abhorrent views that the mere suspicion of racism is enough to judge them unfit to speak at a doctors’ conference. Others are deemed to be fit to govern this country, in spite of documentary proof of their anti-Semitism that is so extensive it has prompted a full-scale investigation by the authorities.
I’m annoyed about my poorly worded 2016 tweet, but I’m far more embarrassed for the doctors who want to no-platform me – and I’m even more mortified for the RCGP for caving into their pathetic demands.
Shame on me? Shame on them.