Friday, November 13, 2015

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Something Rotten In The State Of Liverpool

In the wake of a recent Political Studies Association of Ireland discussion around the Liverpool University research project on dissenting Irish republican thinking, Anthony McIntyre and Mark Hayes raise questions about the lack of institutional transparency surrounding the project. They also suggest that a strategy of displacement is in play which seeks to kick culpability down the line rather than hold senior staff and the institution to account.

Recent developments in British universities have shown what timorous places they have become. Fudging and folding in their eagerness to placate the religious right and muzzle or ban secular speakers, perhaps “timorous” on its own falls far short of the descriptive mark. 

Maybe Richard Dawkins was more on the money with his acerbic comment “What do the bleating cowards of Warwick SU think a university is for?” Not for thinking, would be a reasonable stab at an answer. 

We note with alarm that recent “counter-terrorism” legislation is being used in British Universities to “Prevent” speakers such as the socialist Dave Nellist from contributing to an important debate. Clearly “preventing radicalisation” is proving to be a very blunt instrument used to spread the contagion of censorship. The lack of spinal fortitude in academia has to be deeply corrosive of the intellectual stamina so crucial to sustaining rigorous inquiry. 

As we saw previously, these “centres of learning” can also be laden with perilous pathways for the unsuspecting research participant. Even when Halloween is long behind us the spectral shadow of the spooks will continue to haunt and stalk the British academic scene. When Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University stated his intention in writing to provide the British Intelligence community with the research gleaned from a field project involving republicans throughout Ireland (for the most part at odds with the Anglo-Irish Treaty known as the Good Friday Agreement), the potential for harm to be inflicted on the academic research ethos was immense. We should perhaps remind ourselves, briefly, of his complicity or, as some have said, his offer of academic collusion:
The research will be disseminated via special briefing notes to interested parties, summarising the main findings and outlining possible policy implications and recommendations. Recipients of written briefings, which will be accompanied by oral evidence where requested, will include ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and their civil servants, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his ministerial team, plus the Shadow equivalent; members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and senior officers within the Police Service of Northern Ireland, ministers and civil servants from the Irish government the Parades Commission, the Community Relations Council and other public bodies with a remit to diminish conflict and confrontation in Northern Ireland.

Does something like this not matter in the world of British and Irish academia? The muted public response from British and Irish academics, or the privately vented don’t understand what all the fuss is about old bean, what say you suggests that it is the most natural thing in the university world, or at least not something that anyone would get distressed about. This muteness has been buttressed by the silence surrounding the outcome of Liverpool University’s own disciplinary hearing into the matter. Neither findings nor sanctions, if any, have been revealed, as far as we can ascertain. 

Seemingly, the repositories of public knowledge do not want the public to have knowledge about the more nefarious aspects of academic culture. The shroud of secrecy (or lack of transparency) essentially amounts to this: institutions of knowledge are places where the academics are afforded the opportunity to learn about research participants but research participants are denied the ability to learn about the academics - even when the academics have been involved in serious breaches of protocol and research ethics. 

When Professor Tonge’s statement of intent in writing was fortuitously discovered, neither he nor the people working with him and whose names appear on the original ESRC proposal, told any of the project interviewees that there was genuine cause for concern. It is not that the research participants were fearful of prosecutions: there would not be any. Marisa McGlinchey, the young Belfast researcher in the field, had structured her research methodology in such a way that she was asking interviewees to disclose nothing more than they would write on their own blogs or during the course of social media interactions. The essence of the issue is this – how many participants would have withdrawn their support had they known that the intention, as explicitly stated by Professor Tonge, was that the information procured was destined for the data bases of the British security services? 

The concern on the part of the people interviewed for the project was that they had agreed to participate in good faith and were thereafter shafted in something that seemed to resemble a routine intelligence gathering operation on behalf of the British state. The subjects of the project were politically motivated Irish republicans with every reason to have grave misgivings about the British security services.

In private some academics have argued in Jon Tonge’s defence that he did not make the offer to the British intelligence services but to the ESRC and only then as a stratagem to enhance access to funding. Maybe so. Up until late last month this was not a mitigation Professor Tonge had publicly offered himself. The written record was all that existed and it was pretty damning. But just over a fortnight ago in a conference room at Cork’s Metropole Hotel, Tonge, while speaking at the PSAI yearly conference about this very case, moved to put his position on the record, claiming to have messed up. He apologised.

Given that people in all walks of life are prone to “gild the lily” when they make a pitch, this may be a plausible explanation, although arguably its potency is attenuated by Tonge having, prior to the project, attended a conference at St Andrews University in the company of Professor Jim McAuley of Huddersfield University. The name of Professor McAuley also features in the project, having been described by the ESRC as a co-investigator.

At that conference, exchanges apparently took place between Tonge et al and assorted members of the intelligence community, the content of which, we remain unaware. Even if they were anodyne, the cause for disquiet and unease lies in St Andrews having a record of close liaison with the security services and a reputation as the epicentre of the new "terrorology" which is associated with the apologetics of pro-state academic Professor Paul Wilkinson. Evidently the spook community which coalesces around St. Andrews is home to precisely the very people who would show much more than a passing interest in the project. 

Moreover, exactly how Professor Tonge planned to renege on the written commitment he had made to share the research with the security services et al, once the funding had been provided and the time had come to call the tune that had been paid for, we are left to guess. 

In defence of Tonge, the dots might not join up to produce malice aforethought. But he should at least understand why people will think that they might. We can also say, in his defence, that, to the best of our knowledge, Tonge has never claimed to be a republican in academia, merely an academic interested in republicanism.

The same cannot be said of Dr Kevin Bean, who, unlike Professor Tonge, would swan around republican events and commemorations in Ireland very much asserting a republican pedigree and flashing republican credentials. While initially trusting him - indeed one of the current writers had co-authored a book on republicanism with him while the other had assisted him greatly in his research endeavours over the past two decades - our exchanges with him began to uncover a persona that was vacillating, misleading and inexplicably inaccessible at crucial moments. This is what we would expect to find in a researcher more concerned with protecting the research institution than the research participant. 

While being central to the field research dimension of the project, Bean also appears to have had something of a managerial role. Following the discovery of Tonge’s proposal to the ESRC and the potential ramifications flowing from the malevolent machinations contained therein, coupled with the issues of trust arising from the interpersonal relations between Kevin Bean and many republicans, the extent of Dr Bean’s involvement needed to be laid out swiftly and unambiguously. His persistent promises to issue a statement detailing both his role in the project and a critique of how it was managed never materialised despite months of persistent exhortation by both of the current authors. Eventually, a year after our own piece had highlighted something rotten in the state of Liverpool, Bean did at last commit something to print. It was nothing other than a thinly veiled disquisition designed to cover thy ass. After almost a year of promises and prevarications, Kevin Bean went public .... in a left wing blog based in New Zealand. 

There were other, perhaps more appropriate avenues, but they were studiously avoided. In the “Bean Speaks Out” expose there was no speaking out about the Liverpool University inquiry, to which he must have contributed. To this day his name still appears on the websites which carry the project proposal. Why? 

The facts are incontrovertible. Dr. Bean's name, along with those of Professor Jon Tonge, Professor Jim McAuley and Professor Thomas Hennessey, was on the original ESRC proposal which, as we note above, expressed the malign intent to pass research findings about so-called "dissidents" to Unionist politicians, British government officials, the PSNI, the British Army and MI5. Kevin Bean claims never to have read the proposal for the ESRC, despite being a member of the ESRC's College of Assessors. That was perhaps a possibility given the volume of paperwork involved and the box-ticking hoops that researchers are compelled to jump through, and about which they are tempted to take short cuts. Plus the actual proposal was submitted to the ESRC prior to Bean’s association with the project. Nevertheless, because of the deeply deleterious connotations of this fact, we moved to seek clarification from him in person and which we insisted should be made public. 

While initially, Dr Bean had appeared to express concerns about the offer to the security services and sought to distance himself from it in private, in public he effectively sabotaged attempts to have the matter raised in the UK national press and dragged his feet on every occasion, without exception, when asked to take a more proactive stance. 

Kevin Bean, at a conference in Bath, even felt it necessary to describe our critique of the project as a “naïve trope” despite being fully cognisant in advance of the content of that critique and about which he raised no objections on grounds of naiveté or anything else. When questioned about this there was no elaboration. Bean's evasiveness and delayed action, coupled with the ambiguity of some of his statements, must raise serious questions about his actual role in the entire process. This is extremely disappointing and it is with sadness rather than anger that we reach the conclusion that careerism, at best, has caused a former friend to renege on his ethical responsibilities. While we as former colleagues have cause to doubt Dr. Bean, the republican interviewees are, of course, free to draw their own conclusions.

Another no less salient matter is the position of Marisa McGlinchey – the only person to emerge with credit from this sad and sorry affair. This junior researcher was, to a large extent, abandoned after the proverbial hit the fan. It was for the most part through her insistence and efforts that the interviewees were kept abreast of developments once the inexcusable iniquities contained within Professor Tonge’s proposal had been disclosed. 

This brings us to another related, but no less disturbing matter. The manner in which McGlinchey was verbally abused at the recent PSAI conference in Cork by Professor Jim McAuley of Huddersfield University raises further serious questions about the venture.

In a vitriolic outburst, confirmed by independent witnesses, Professor McAuley
accused McGlinchey of being “sectarian”. McAuley is said to have asserted that McGlinchey, the most junior and only female member of the team, had booted him off the project because he was a Protestant! He also accused her of having lied to the interviewees. Both accusations are groundless, supported by nothing other than the bullying aggression with which they were hurled. 

These accusations are very serious but it appears they can be made without consequence in a scholarly seminar when they would never stand up in court – still less a street or a pub! None of the senior academics at the Cork conference that were associated with the project intervened or did anything but look at their boots, leaving McAuley free to launch his vitriol. If it wasn't for some members of the audience texting their disapproval to friends and fellow academics not in attendance, while McAuley’s malign words were still hanging in the air, the disgraceful incident might never have been known about. 

Ultimately, the upshot of McAuley’s silence-assisted outburst in Cork was, in the words of one delegate, a smokescreen that masked the very serious issues which the session was supposed to address. This included how the Tonge application not only got through the ethics approval system at Liverpool, Huddersfield and Canterbury Christ Church, but also why none of the ESRC reviewers slapped it down as wholly inappropriate. Are these the sorts of questions Professor McAuley did not want discussed and from which he sought to deflect attention by means of an ad hominem attack on Dr McGlinchey? 

In our view this is nothing more than a reprehensible attempt by a senior academic to bully a junior, and the one researcher on the project to have behaved with propriety. 

The cabal of senior academics involved in the Liverpool project convey an image of members of some masonic type lodge, addressing each other with venerable titles and performing ritualistic handshakes by way of sealing some in-house malpractice. Covering each other’s back, some of them have also sought to thrust the knife into the back of anybody they suspect might have blown the whistle on their nefarious activities. None of it will matter. To usefully mangle Glenn Greenwald: the internet is the frontline in the battle between the hoity-toity and the hoi polloi. Those with concerns will not be bullied into silent submission. When academic activity is characterised by such careerism, cronyism and bullying you can be sure a culture of compliance prevails. This is a culture that has been nurtured by the state and is easily manipulated by sinister forces.

Unfortunately, opposition to this by academics has been ephemeral and episodic. They have had far too much to lose. We don’t expect scholars to be heroes, or even make a meaningful contribution to the process of resisting powerful elites – but if they could refrain from cynically exploiting, intimidating or abandoning those young academics who are actually trying to do the right thing – it would be a start. On recent evidence even this appears a very tall order.

3 comments :

Ramon The Wolf said...

It's striking how little Brits care about sleepwalking into a surveillance state.

Strange days when it takes a Tory such as David Davis to tell it. Talking to the Guardian the other day, he was saying that we're intellectually lazy about surveillance, on account of never having had a Stasi or a Gestapo.

Too right.

Regarding universities, these days do they exist for any purpose other than turning a profit? A strikingly high proportion of their students come from overseas, mainly from emerging countries such as BRIC, paying high fees which subsidise local students.

You could see this as symptomatic of the decline of the western world; one of the main economic reasons for a country to support universities would be to give it a advantage
over its competitor countries.

Why let your competitors come to your university and acquire all your knowledge? Well, because you have nothing else they'll buy from you.

Hence also why the unis are so censorious.

Sad times, but also one of the reasons why debate increasingly takes place online.

sean bres said...

Fair dues

Paul Aylward said...

I found this and the earlier expose' both deeply disturbing and yet at the same time inspiring. This is an unflinching and commendable account of how fundamental and universal ethical research principles can be treated as merely tokenistic when the interests they serve are deemed unworthy of protection by those occupying positions of power. The article raises many serious questions which demand a clear and meticulous response from both the institutions and individuals named and those who believe that academic integrity is something more than a mere set of new Emperor’s clothes.
Dr. Paul Aylward