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Leading journalist refuses to speak at Bristol Uni over SU safe spaces policy

‘It’s impossible for me to approve of a vetting and censorship process’

A former Reuters, BBC and Financial Times reporter has refused to speak at Bristol University because of Bristol Students' Union's "safe space" policy.

Michela Wrong, who spent six years as an Africa correspondent and has written three non-fiction books about the continent, was invited by the Bristol International Affairs Society to talk about her experiences in reporting and corruption in Africa.

However Ms Wrong declined the society's invitation, explaining in a lengthy email to the International Affairs Society how she took "exception to the entire notion of 'safe spaces' and the practice of 'no platforming'."

An image of the Bristol SU offices in the SU building

Current SU policy for society events is to have an "External Speaker Request Form" filled out by the society and then approved by the SU. Ms Wrong cited her own experiences of regimes censoring journalists as the reason why she took exception to the SU "vetting" external speakers.

"I am sometimes able to say things that my African fellow writers may be too frightened and bullied to say. In many cases they would be prosecuted, sacked, find themselves unemployed and unemployable, jailed, beaten up, and in the most extreme cases, killed… Even here in London, repressive African regimes reach out to silence criticism. In the last two weeks I've chaired a book launch for an African academic and taken part in an APPG at the Houses of Parliament and at both, embassy staff representing the African country in question sat at the table trying to discredit me, the media, and outspoken members of their country's diaspora."

"The country's ruling party makes a point of disrupting any diaspora meeting in the UK, films events so that anyone attending can be identified, then tweets abuse. These tactics are not unique to the country in question."

Ms Wrong criticised Bristol SU's past form on no-platforming

"Given this context of intimidation and bullying, it's impossible for me to approve of a vetting and censorship process, this time one authorised and implemented by the British student body itself. How desperately, desperately sad!"

"I see no call for "safe spaces" on campuses: the world I have lived and worked in as a reporter offers none, after all. Students need to be prepared for that gritty reality. As for "No Platform", that's exactly what governments in Eritrea, Ethiopia, DRC, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Togo etc etc. routinely grant writers, journalists, analysts, human rights campaigners and members of civil society."

"I hate seeing this on assignment. I am more aware than most of the way such policies distort our understanding of the world and silence informed debate, so why on earth would I endorse that system at home, as part of British society?"

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Ms Wrong, second from right, pictured at a Chatham House event in 2013

Ms Wrong went on to "make a less high-minded, pragmatic comment", citing the lack of a speaker's fee as a disincentive to speak at Bristol but that "You do it to be helpful, because it feels like the right, civic thing to do." However, "for a Students Union to apply a vetting procedure in these circumstances reveals that they have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the exchange."

"I take on board what you said about this situation not being in your power to change. I'm not convinced this is entirely true, in that apparently individual SUs can embrace what guidelines they like concerning external speakers. But I see that Bristol SU has form when it comes to No Platforming (Roger Scruton constituting a prominent scalp this time last year, right?) so no doubt it's not about to execute a U-turn any time soon."

The journalist ended her email with the suggestion that: "The SU is a democracy and its members come up for election. I would encourage you in the first instance to brief its members on our conversations – and my refusal to go ahead – and press for a different approach… They should know their policies are effectively closing down intellectual debate. If the SU members don't agree, well, vote them out next election time."

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The statement as it appeared in the Bristol Against Censorship group

Tom Hayward, Treasurer of the International Affairs Society posted the comments in the Bristol Against Censorship group on Facebook. You can read Ms Wrong's statement here.

Commenting on the news the BIAS committee said: "The International Affairs Society is disappointed that this policy leaves distinguished individuals such as Michela Wrong unwilling to speak at our University. We respect her decision not to attend based on her principled opposition to 'no platforming'. We are, however, happy her decision brings attention to an important and ongoing debate at Universities across the globe."

The news comes ahead of Thursday's Student Council meeting at which student leaders will be voting on a "Speaker Disinvitation Procedure" motion proposed by SU officers. The motion seeks to clarify the existing procedure under which guests are invited and approved to speak at the university.