October 27, 2017

Cambridge defends a female student of color after a targeted Telegraph headline leads to threats


During this wildly polarizing time, everyone’s starting to show their true colors. Including media organizations.

Most recently, the Daily Telegraph—one of the UK’s leading national papers—reported on a Cambridge University student’s appeal to her English Department to teach more authors of color.

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Except that’s not how the Telegraph said it at all. Instead, they ran an oversized portrait of the student in question (a young black woman and Student Union women’s officer by the name of Lola Olufemi), and one line: “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.” The increasingly right-wing paper’s discriminatory agenda was apparent.

The New Statesman’s resident media columnist, who writes as the “Media Mole,” reports on the controversy: “The Telegraph’s spin on this story—that ‘Cambridge University’s English Literature professors will be forced to replace white authors with black writers’ due to pressure to ‘decolonise’ the course—is way off.”

Okay. First off, there’s something really distasteful about this distinction between “white authors” and “black writers,” as if race dictates the legitimacy of careers. But anyway! According to the Mole, what actually happened was that Olufemi sent a petition, signed by over 150 people, through the appropriate channels for review. The signatories evidently meant to join a recent surge of interest in broadening university curricula to include long-marginalized voices — an admirable and necessary step. But Olufemi’s petition for greater inclusiveness was just that—a petition for greater inclusiveness—and the fear that white authors are being somehow erased from memory is some next-level paranoia. The Telegraph’s decision to capitalize on a fragile political climate led directly to racist, misogynistic harassment.

Publishing Olufemi’s photo with an out-of-context and misleading headline invited horrifying threats against her, and brought derision and frustration down on the paper.

In a reassuring twist, however, Cambridge quickly spoke up and defended their student. Re-published in the New Statesman, the university’s statement speaks to Cambridge’s rigorous and critical evaluation of their own curricula, and ends with a denouncement of the treatment of their student: “We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”

A day after their massive fuck-up, the Telegraph offered a clarification. According to Graeme Demianyk at HuffPost UK, a brief statement on page two of the paper said:

An Oct 25 article incorrectly stated that under the proposals by academic staff in response to an open letter from students in ‘decolonising’ its English Faculty, Cambridge University will be forced to replace white authors with black writers.

The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so.

I think Twitter user @Caalz put it best when she tweeted her response Thursday afternoon: “IF YOU PUBLISH LIES ABOUT SOMEONE ON THE FRONT PAGE… APOLOGISE TO THEM ON THE FRONT PAGE.” Yup.



Alex Primiani is senior publicist at Melville House.