David Miller’s sacking

The sacking of David Miller by the University of Bristol opens up a grim prospect for British academia.

The termination of Miller’s contract results from continuing pressure over two full years. The initial complaint came from an activist Jewish student not registered on his course who had nevertheless taken the decision to attend one of his lectures. But pressure for his dismissal only became intense in February 2021 following remarks he made during a webinar, which exaggerated the power and reach of Israel and its supporting ideology of Zionism. Most of this pressure has come from outside the university.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism has throughout played a particularly active part in the claims that Professor Miller had promoted antisemitic conspiracy theories.  Following the webinar Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees took up the issue, and Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire described Miller’s conduct as “completely unacceptable….I’m following this appalling behaviour by a Bristol university lecturer up with the university”. Over 100 MPs and peers wrote that month to the university saying “Professor Miller has brought your university into disrepute, you must now act before any further damage is done”. And then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson weighed in in June with “I do not expect universities to tolerate racists”.

The pressure for his dismissal over the past many months has been unrelenting. And this must be understood as the context within which Bristol’s Vice Chancellor announced the termination decision. And this is how it has been reported in publications of record. The headline in Times Higher Education read “Bristol sacks professor accused of antisemitism”. And the Times went with “A university professor accused of anti-semitism has been fired after claiming Jewish students and societies who complained about him were part of a campaign of censorship ‘directed by the State of Israel’”.

And yet the Bristol University statement on the sacking, so vague in almost every respect, is crystal clear on this issue: “The investigation included an independent report from a leading Queen’s Counsel who considered the important issue of academic freedom of expression and found that Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech.” The University’s statement in fact does not attribute Miller’s sacking to anything that he has said either in lectures or public pronouncements (nor indeed to the content of his research).

So, despite the impression given by the Times and Times Higher Education, the Bristol decision is not based on a finding of antisemitism, or of any other form of hate speech, against David Miller. The grounds that we are offered by Bristol are just these: that the hearing “found Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”. This is the sum total of explanation. Even respecting the confidentiality necessary to disciplinary hearings this is surely a totally inadequate explanation for so grave a step as terminating a senior academic’s contract. It is hard to imagine a form of ‘behaviour’ (other than that of the use of racist language, which has been ruled out) that could justify sacking.

Standards of behaviour? There have always been some staff, regrettably, who have treated students without appropriate consideration and civility. This has not to date been a sackable offence. Staff may sometimes come to conclusions in their research, and give them additional currency in public campaigning, that some students find disagreeable or worse. Academics, for example, do portray the objectives and methods of particular countries in a very negative light (think China) that students from that country may well find hurtful. Are such teachers now to be summarily dispensed with?

We need to be clear. Jewish Voice for Labour does not endorse formulations of critiques of Zionism and of Israel that promote an exaggerated view of Israel’s reach. That is formidable enough without exaggeration. Such formulations may fall comfortably on the ears of the already convinced but lessen the impact of other, more solidly founded critiques, and undermine the power of rational analysis.

The answer to opinions which some find offensive –  even deeply offensive – is generally more free speech, not less. Particularly in a university context it is vital that students are exposed to differing viewpoints and encouraged to learn to make the discriminations necessary to forming judgments of their own. Statements can be misguided, exaggerated or even quite wrong-headed without them constituting hate speech that could justify expulsion.

The university’s statement, as we have said, fact does not attribute Miller’s sacking to anything that he has said either in lectures or public pronouncements (nor indeed to the content of his research). A faculty member has been dismissed – not for improper behaviour, not for unlawful speech, but because enough powerful people have made the university too frightened to stick to its principles. This is a moment of shame for the University of Bristol, and of danger for the whole UK academic system.

Comments (33)

  • Margaret West says:

    Excellent article – not only is the reason for his sacking
    inadequate but it surely contravenes the “ban on
    no-platforming” principle for Universities promoted by the Government?

    Furthermore according to
    https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/freedom-of-expression-guide-for-higher-education-providers-and-students-unions-england-and-wales.pdf

    HEPs have to protect freedom of expression .

    See also Lord Mann “Be it Ken Loach or JK Rowling speaking on campus, or attempts at academic boycotts, I support the principle of free speech and academic freedom. ”

    (Quotation was cut and pasted from an article in JVL – February 2021.)

  • Dave says:

    You say Miller has exaggerated Israel’s reach which is already ‘formidable’, so what is the distinction you are making? I’ve heard Miller speaking on this and I can’t see where he exaggerates the formidable. This is a state that has been condemned in 45 resolutions by the United Nations Human Rights Council but escapes sanctions that would surely be levelled against other states. The congruence of Israel and its allies in the west in the various organisations and tools they use is hard to exaggerate if the end result is what we see.

  • John Spencer says:

    Whether or not the campaign of censorship referred to by Miller is “directed by the state of Israel” remains to be established (or refuted). It is an issue of fact without any racist overtones. Shai Massot (Israeli diplomat filmed conspiring to establish Zionist cells in the Labour Party) and Assaf Kaplan (former member of Israeli cyber-surveillance Unit 8200 appointed to Starmer’s inner campaign team) might be able to help with the answer.

  • David ASHTON says:

    I believe in free speech and informed ALL ROUND. This is especially important in university circles. I understand that the survival of Israel is an existential issue for Jews and therefore any debate over Zionism can be heated. I personally have always supported Israel as a Jewish national state within agreed borders, and despite the circumstances of its inception, and I am also critical of Islamism and also the “woke” criteria regarding “race, gender, class”. But it is disturbing to read in “The Jewish Chronicle”, 8 October 2021, about “dealing with hundreds of other toxic academics out there” David Collier, p.4) and the dismissal of David Miller “should mark a beginning….that the tide is turning and their universities will no longer be able to offer them a safe space….”

  • Alexander Gavin says:

    Is it possible to take the university to an industrial tribunal or some equivalent? I want to see the university forced to state exactly what was said or done that led to the sacking.

  • Peter Provins says:

    What David Miller said was not untrue but a lot of influential people didn’t want him to say them. Nowadays rather than debating we shout people down through social media because we don ‘t want people to have a voice except people we agree with. We are robbing ourselves of free speech

  • Jacob Ecclestone says:

    History will be unkind to Professor Hugh Brady, the vice-chancellor of Bristol University, and those of his colleagues who sanctioned the dismissal of David Miller. They have brought shame on themselves and on the university itself. Rather than defending truth and freedom of expression they have sought to placate those who falsely claim to be fighting anti-semitism. They have sought the approval of a corrupt media and praise from politicians who pander to the mob.

    If it is the job of universities to be the conscience and critic of society, then Bristol University has failed.

    Those who sat in judgement on David Miller are the same people who condemned John Proctor in “The Crucible”, Arthur Miller’s play on the Salem witchcraft trials; the same people who condemned Dr Thomas Stockman as “an enemy of the people” in Ibsen’s great play.

    The men and women who were ready to sacrifice David Miller in return for a quiet life and furthering their own careers should remember, too, the fate of Professor Halder in “Good” – Cecil Taylor’s remarkable play about the Holocaust. Good people can be seduced into doing monstrous things.

    When universities begin to dismiss teachers because of what they say, then we should fear for the future.

  • Dave Hansell says:

    It would seem reasonable to observe that the generic principles at the heart of this particular case have already been established in law in the Forstater judgement.

    Miller should take legal action, via crowdfunding if necessary, against both the University and the mob vexatiously bringing these cases. The alternative is the end of due process protocols, principles and standards along with objective evidence based inquiry/judgement in favour of rule by the mob.

  • A brilliant and indeed, poignant response. Chapeau!
    What is particularly worrying is the silence of Professor Miller’s fellow academics at Bristol and further afield. Their failure to show solidarity with their colleague (let alone to defend academic freedom) suggests that they are not aware of the ancient Roman saying: “Hodie mihi, cras tibi” i.e. “Today (it is done) to me, tomorrow (it will be done) to you”.

  • Simon Pearson says:

    The Nobel Prize has just been awarded to 2 journalists for standing up for free speech. But not in Bristol.

  • David Ashton says:

    I thought I had written that I believe in “informed debate” all round. Free speech is necessary but not alway sufficient to reach sound conclusions.

  • Chris Friel says:

    I have just begun to put together some forensic points detailing the chronology of the Miller case. My beginning is here:
    https://www.academia.edu/56560664/Points_on_Miller_and_the_anti_Miller_Campaign

  • Paul Wimpeney says:

    Come, come, JVL! Miller is described by your spokesperson as having made “remarks … which exaggerated the power and reach of Israel and its supporting ideology of Zionism.”

    A country of 8 million people, occupying an area the size of Wales, free to practise apartheid, established by ethnic cleansing, allowed by the “Free World” to possess nuclear weapons, openly undertakes targeted killings, launches periodic onslaughts on Palestinians in Gaza who are prevented from trying to escape the murderous armaments which it then sells as battle-tested, supported by the US, EU etc. etc!

    How does one exaggerate the power and reach of such a place?

  • Mark says:

    Sounds like such a closed-minded establishment needs avoiding by prospective students to me. What a sad state of affairs.

  • Brian Iles says:

    Bad enough a biased political party banishing its former leader on a trumped up charge. As a member of that party, I was filled with sadness. Another story altogether when a University, a seat of reason etc, does something similar. As a member of the human race, I am filled with despair

  • Bobbie says:

    What, for heaven’s sake, is ‘free speech’ if free speech can’t be freely spoken without that some reactionary outraged opponent against what has been freely uttered cries “foul” and with machinations of pompous doctrinaire insistence has the ‘free speaker’ silenced or in other ways defamed and ostracised. What fascistic argumentative machinery is this that inhibits ‘free speech’?

  • Diane Miles says:

    If an academic (or anyone) is to be fired for behaviour, the specifics of the behaviour should be clear.

  • DAVID JONES says:

    The 100 signatories on the letter condemning David Miller (including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party) must be very pleased and proud of themselves. What’s next – a bonfire of his books and essays???

  • Mike Vine says:

    Shameful decision by Bristol University. An embarrassment to our fair city.

  • Leo Redpath says:

    Looks like Professor Miller has grounds for a successful tribunal action – Against his former employer Bristol University – Sadly the Zionist campaign to shut down proper open debate and questions on the issues that confront the Palestinians in Isreal and Gaza is unrelenting. Bristol has apparently succumbed to external political pressure that clearly is contrary to freedom of speech and academic freedom of debate.

  • Excellent statement, thank you.
    One comment: Prof Miller was sacked for alleged antisemitism (notwithstanding the University’s inability to actually say this). JVL’s statement, while defending Miller, states that it “does not endorse formulations of critiques of Zionism and of Israel that promote an exaggerated view of Israel’s reach.” But whether or not Miller exaggerated “Israel’s reach”, even making this statement implicitly accepts Zionism’s & Israel’s claim on Jewish identity — other JVL’s point would be incongruous. Prof Miller’s claims about Israel’s “reach” may or may not withstand scrutiny, but no matter now exaggerated they are claimed to be, what does it have to do Jews or antisemitism? Israel is a nation-state, period, not a “people”. If someone is accused of exaggerating the influence of, say, Russia (which, e.g., some alleged compromised the 2016 US Pres election), no one would ever tie it to an offense against some ethnicity. We do it with Israel because that’s what Israel has trained us to do. We must stop.

  • Frances Crane says:

    Disgraceful that the University could not stand up to bullying. Not a very good example to set to the studens

  • Paul Smith says:

    I note that David Renton signed the letter condemning David Miller.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    It’s a dangerous business, criticizing Israel; one slip, one foot outside the precise boundary allowed between what can and cannot be said, and the wrath of the establishment will come crashing down on your head. David Miller’s case is only example.

    There exist, however, three areas where trenchant criticism has to be permitted, even (under protest) by Israel’s staunchest defenders.

    1. The most longstanding relates to the fact that the UN has declared that the settlements being built on the West Bank are illegal acts of occupation under international law.

    2. Following the B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch reports we now have a licence to call the practices of the state ‘apartheid’- even if still biterly opposed by Israeli state apologists.

    3. Testimony of reporters on the ground, news footage of war crimes and the vast body of filmed evidence now being captured on mobile phones by Palestinians and others. This evidence should be as damning and conclusive as the Rodney King and George Floyd videos of police brutality in the US.

    Or so one would have thought. I suggested on twitter that the Palestinian films could be organized into one generally accessible web-based resource. Before long a comment popped up by a supporter of Israel to say that any such collection would demonstrate that the films lacked context and had been selectively edited. The tweeter referred to those who filmed these atrocities as ‘Pallywood.’

    The tweeter’s contention seems demonstrably false. Most of the videos provide a very clear context (place, date). Moreover they generally consist of a single continuous hand-held shot, the sort of record that would be difficult to distort with selective editing. If claims that these are “fabricated” are not fought such lies will gain currency to the point where no filmed evidence of war-crimes will be deemed credible.

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Dear JVL, I am worried by your statement that David Miller has exaggerated the reach of Israeli interventions. It is normal for embassies and governments to promote their national interests. Having seen the ambassador himself patrol Labour party conferences and JVL fringe meetings, I would have expected you to be more forthright in defending David Miller. Have I missed anything else he said which may have been more questionable? Is there a chance that we could hold a webinar discussing this? I am depressed but to be honest not shocked to hear that Caroline Lucas and David Renton also joined the pile-in. However this does show how very far we have to go.

  • George Porter says:

    What is the link for crowdfunding tribunal/legal action?

  • Neal Kawar says:

    The zionist lobby have proven his entire argument with their actions. They are terrified that the greater educated world begins to care about the outsized influence they throw about, destroying objective thought and constructive dialogue. Shame on the U of B and all involved in this sick action.

  • Simon Pearson says:

    On re-reading my earlier comment I realise it comes across as insulting to the city and citizens of Bristol, a fine city whose polytechnic I attended many years ago. I apologise. I ought to have said “the management of Bristol University”.

  • Gary lee says:

    The wording was meant to imply the propaganda reach of the israeli state.It does not seem too exagerated to me.I could of course be wrong .

  • Hazel Seidel says:

    What is your view on Professor Miller characterising Jewish students or their society as ‘pawns’ of Israel?

  • John Michael Bibby says:

    I’d suggest you consult the UoB Chaplaincy Service. They have a statement of principles, of which the first principle is that speech is ok as long as it is within the law. Which Miller was.

  • Stephen Snart says:

    Since this article doesn’t actually detail what Prof Miller said, I find it hard to come to any conclusion. I can’t rely on some else’s opinion to arrive at my own!

  • David Ritman 0 says:

    I’ve now left the Labour Party. Nuff said.

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