At the beginning of May, Ben Sullivan, the president of the Oxford Union, was arrested following one allegation of rape and one of attempted rape. Despite the allegations, Sullivan decided to stay on in his role as president. For some Oxford students, this was too much: they wrote an open letter to Sullivan asking him to step down because of the ‘anger with which Oxford students have reacted, combined with speakers cancelling their appearances’.
The rationale of this letter is ludicrous, especially when you consider that the signatories themselves actively contacted upcoming speakers at the union asking them to withdraw. The idea that Oxford students have reacted with any coherent or widespread ‘anger’ to Sullivan’s arrest is undermined by the fact that the open letter has received fewer than a hundred signatures.
In fact, the letter does nothing to clarify why Sullivan’s arrest should have any impact at all on his ability to lead the Oxford Union. Of course, this has not stopped the letter, and the arrest of Sullivan, from becoming matters of national concern. The New Statesman initially published the letter, only to take it down on the basis that it might constitute contempt of court. Lord Ashdown, due to speak at the union, responded to the letter by saying he is ‘very concerned’, but not concerned enough to cancel his appearance. And in a further bizarre twist, the head of international police agency Interpol thought it necessary to withdraw his offer to speak at the union before offering his own view on Sullivan’s position: ‘In my view, [Sullivan] should be guided by the best interests of his organisation. He should not be guided by his own interests. In this case, my advice to Ben Sullivan would be either to resign or take a leave of absence until the criminal investigation has been completed.’ Quite what qualifies the head of a quasi-police force to comment on what is in the ‘best interests’ of the Oxford Union is anyone’s guess.
In fact, the only person contacted by the campaign who has actively criticised its position is the philosopher AC Grayling. He pointed out that Sullivan was ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and that the very serious allegations made against him should not be adjudicated in the ‘kangaroo court of public opinion’.
Quite right. The idea that commentators and other public figures are right to comment on the arrest of a young man for a very serious allegation shows a complete abandonment of any respect for objectivity and distance. The widespread publicity afforded an open letter which effectively sought to trash the reputation of a young man, and happens to make little sense even on its own terms, doesn’t just ride roughshod over important legal protections; it also shows that the contemporary discussion of rape has become tawdry and utterly undignified.