As an academic I believe that public debate is important: ideas should be tested and scrutinised. But to advance our collective understanding of issues, debate should be respectful, informed, factual and reasoned.
Before I explain what happened to me, I want to preface what I say with an account of the work that I did for which I came under fire. I do this, because it is natural to think that someone who gets into trouble somehow be to blame for their misfortune. This is not the case.
From January 2018, I have directed a child-led history and writing project called Colonial Countryside and steered by a team of historians. The project has been widely praised in the heritage and museum sectors for successfully enthusing children about history and heritage sites. It explored unfamiliar connections between country houses and African, Indian and Caribbean histories and people. I worked with 100 primary children to explore the global histories of 11 historic houses, learning about everything from Chinese wallpaper in Wales to the African presence in rural Warwickshire during the 17th century. Colonial Countryside pupils co-curated exhibitions, attended conferences and wrote guidebooks for children. I commissioned 10 pieces of creative writing by award-winning authors, bringing this history to life by exploring the lives of people like Diego, a formerly enslaved African circumnavigator who sailed on voyages with Francis Drake. The project opened up sensitive histories in heartfelt and respectful ways.
“Some newspapers were more interested in smears and personal attacks than factual debate.”
Yet, after a high-profile report I co-edited was published, I found that some newspapers (backed by some MPs) were more interested in smears and personal attacks than factual debate.
In 2019, I was commissioned by the National Trust to research a report into its properties’ connections to the East India Company and to transatlantic slavery. We found that a third of its properties had links to the British Empire.
The report was released in September 2020 and the initial media response was positive. Although some can find it uncomfortable to reckon with the UK’s colonial history, the report was written in a measured tone and it evidenced and listed 93 houses’ connections to empire.
However, 56 Conservative MPs known as the “Common Sense Group” soon afterwards declared a ‘culture war’. Jacob Rees Mogg gave a speech in Parliament, saying that, by including in the report reference to Churchill’s house, Chartwell, the report denigrated Churchill (the report notes colonial administrators, and so mentions that Churchill was Colonial Secretary and voted against Indian Independence – matters of historical record).
“If that wasn’t chilling enough, the Telegraph then reported that the Charity Commission might investigate the National Trust”
If that wasn’t chilling enough, the Telegraph then reported that the Charity Commission might investigate the National Trust on the grounds that the report was outside the Trust’s charitable remit – even though the founding National Trust Act of 1907 clause 4.2 states plainly that the Trust ‘may acquire property…for purposes of public recreation resort or instruction’.
Trust Director-General Hilary McGrady tweeted ‘if it is wrong to… [research our properties], then the National Trust has been doing the wrong thing for 125 years.’
Parliamentarians then called two debates in Westminster Hall and the House of Lords, to debate the “Future of the National Trust” (November) and the ‘National Trust, 125th Anniversary’ (December), in which the report featured extensively.
Following this, Stephen Heffer, Charles Moore and other columnists wrote articles which questioned the ‘intellectual heft’ of the report editors (naming and criticising each author except for the sole male author) and saying it was ‘one-sided’ and ‘woke’.
From here, the attack became more narrowly focused on myself (as the only academic report editor) and my research project, Colonial Countryside.
The Daily Mail, the Times and the Spectator made groundless accusations, including the assertion that we are ‘politically partial academics’.
“The majority of these articles gave me no right of reply”
Following this, there were a series of attacks on my book, with misreporting of my work (falsely claiming that I wrote in my book that ‘gardening is racist’, The Telegraph) and another incorrect claim that the National Trust report was ‘error strewn’ (Daily Mail). There was a further false report that I compared British colonialism to the Japanese treatment of Prisoners of War (Daily Mail), an article that provoked more hate mail than all the others put together.
The majority of these articles gave me no right of reply, and none to any of the Colonial Countryside historians mentioned in the news reports.
Finally, government ministers and other senior politicians from the “Common Sense Group” of MPs briefed against myself and the Colonial Countryside historians.
The group wrote open letters against the National Trust report and then wrote to my funders and said that ‘Colonial Countryside’ was ineligible for public funds because it is a ‘political project’. The Sunday Telegraph reported the Government’s position as, ‘Further bids for public money to cover the cost of the Colonial Countryside project would be turned down’
“Nobody is arguing that reports like the Trust’s should not be discussed publicly. That is part of why they are written – to provoke discussion and reflection”
I have rarely been given a right to reply to these articles (though the Telegraph did allow me to publish a piece here: Let’s not weaponise history: let’s talk about shared histories across generations, cultures and political divides (telegraph.co.uk))
Nobody is arguing that reports like the Trust’s should not be discussed publicly. That is part of why they are written – to provoke discussion and reflection. Any academic welcomes public scrutiny of their work.
But waves of press and political attacks – without factual or reasoned foundation – do not contribute to that debate. They damage it, coming as a warning and a threat to the next person or organisation who might contribute. They aim to discredit experts, create hate-figures and foster social divisions at a time when the nation is troubled by a pandemic and all kinds of uncertainty about the future. We need to be able to have respectful, constructive and open conversations about our nation’s past which reach across cultures and social divides.