‘What the fuck did he say?’
The Dean was used to speaking plainly to the Communications Director.
‘He said, The Min Ed wouldn’t know a rational argument if it knelt down in front of him and sucked him off.’
‘And who all knows about this?’
‘A reporter on the Traffic saw it. About 2,000 followers, ten of whom have already retweeted it.’
‘And is the Traffic going to run something?’
‘Looks like it. We could brief them off the record’, he suggested, ‘that the University has internal disciplinary proceedings. We’ll have to take time to see if they apply in this case. Or we could tell them to fuck off. And if they drag us into this their free pass to the graduation ceremony will get lost in the post.’
‘What about the wee cunt himself?’
The Communications Director wasn’t going to lead the charge. ‘That’s your job, not mine.’
‘Well can you meet me in my office in the morning, John.’
When John Crimson arrived at the office of the Dean he found that he had been joined already by the Head of the School of English, Tom Schuster and a pro vice chancellor, Ig McNally.
‘Thank you for joining us. Since you know the background to this, perhaps you could brief your colleagues.’
Crimson opened a folder and took out printed pages and passed them round.
‘This is a copy of recent Twitter and Facebook messages by Horace McAuley. McAuley, as you know, is a popular journalist and broadcaster who has done a few books. He is also currently our Cahir Lamb Fellow, funded by the Cahir Lamb Society.’
‘Can we sack him?’ asked the Dean.
‘Well, we’d have to explain that to the Lambs,’ said Crimson.
‘Who are, so far, silent on the matter’, said Tom Schuster, the literary one. ‘Another problem is we’d have to pay someone else to do his work. We get him for free.’
McNally said he didn’t think they could sack him. ‘What would we be sacking him for?’
‘Embarrassing the university?’ suggested Crimson.
‘Has he potentially defamed the Minister of Education? Breach of our social media policy?’ asked Tom.
Crimson took that one. ‘Has he defamed the minister? I think not.’
‘He has suggested that he is a dimwit and a homosexual who gets his cock sucked’, snapped the Dean.
Crimson said, ‘I think, if you read it carefully, he has not said any of those things. Dimwit? Well, impervious to reasoning, yes. I think we’ve all said that. Homosexual? Only if you regard the Rational as male. And anyway it is no slight on a person’s character to suggest they are gay since we now agree that there is nothing wrong with being gay. Enjoys having his cock sucked? Hmmm.’
‘You mean, don’t we all?’ said Tom but the others ignored the remark.
‘Are you telling me’, said the Dean, ‘that he can get away with this?’
‘Perhaps this is a reminder of the need to have a proper social media policy’, said Crimson.
Tom said, ‘there is a clause in his contract of employment which requires him not to bring the university into disrepute.’
‘Well, then’, said the Dean. ‘he has broken that, hasn’t he?’
‘Has he?’ said Tom, with a quizzical whimper. ‘I mean, has he really?’
‘One might argue, on balance’, said McNally, ‘that he had already done quite a bit to enhance the prestige of the University. We have used him in our publicity. If he has clawed back a bit of that …’
‘Bollocks’, roared the Dean. ‘I’m not going in to face the Minister or the Vice Chancellor on this with anything less than this fucker’s balls in my hands.’
Tom said, ‘I suggest the best we can do is draw attention to his responsibility to conduct himself with regard to the reputation of the university and hope that he will take that in good spirit and commit to not doing this again.’
‘And if he doesn’t?’ said the Dean.
‘I really don’t know’, said Tom. ‘Anybody else?’
* * *
Horace McAuley woke with a sense that something had to be dealt with straight away. He just couldn’t focus through the fug of his hangover on precisely what it was. What had he done last night? Oh, yes, the debate. Fuck!
He ran to his laptop, still exuding a faint silvery light across his dinner table and anxiously scanned the twitter feed for #twatfeatures.
This was a discussion he’d been having with other academics watching a politics programme in which the Education Minister was being grilled about funding for universities.
A documentary earlier in the evening had shown universities soliciting visits and funds from dodgy Arab and east Asian regimes by giving out honorary doctorates. One had gone to a poet who had described the beheading of a homosexual man as a blood sacrifice.
‘If you paid the universities properly, they wouldn’t have to run off to beg from tyrants and bigots, would they?’ asked Carl Kramer, the politics programme’s presenter.
‘Sounds like a rational argument to me’, tweeted a professor of American Studies.
But the minister had answered by haranguing the interviewer and Horace had tweeted:
‘The Min Ed wouldn’t know a rational argument if it knelt down in front of him and sucked him off.’
Reading it now, he wasn’t as confident as he’d been when he wrote it.
‘@horaceMc Put down the bottle and step back from the computer #twatfeatures’ was one of the replies. But there were ten retweets and a few favourites. Maybe he should have the courage to stand over it, leave it there. Anyway, what was done was done.
He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on and broke a couple of eggs onto a pan when his phone beeped.
‘Give us a shout.’
That sounded friendly. He phoned Mick, the features editor of Traffic. ‘How’s it going?’
‘We were wondering if you’ve time to do a wee comment piece on Prince William’s beard. You know the thing; is this him trying to man up, is it a really dependable measure of a man that he can grow one. Will it freak the nipper?’
‘Sure. The usual?’
‘Aye, about 800 words. You know you were nearly on our front page?’
‘Some dickhead last night filed a story about your tweet. I spiked it; a load of auld nonsense. People speak on twitter the way they would in the pub and suddenly it’s the end of civilisation. Load of shite.’
‘Thanks.’ But the phone was buzzing again.
‘Horace? Horrid Horace, what the fuck have you done?’
‘What the fuck have I done?’
‘You got yourself taken off the programme.’ He now recognised the voice of a new producer on Time and Style, a Saturday magazine programme that routinely used him as a panelist and newspaper reviewer.
‘You can’t use twitter when you are pissed.’
‘But what’s it got to do with Time and Style?’
‘You have to be clean to represent RTBC TV.’
‘They afraid I’d say ‘fuck’ on air?’
‘It’s not even that. It’s about our image.’
‘How many people watch the programme, about half a million? Maybe three hundred saw that tweet.’
‘That’s not the way they look at it. People are touchy about the internet. Fuck sake, some people have gone to jail for slabbering on Twitter.’
‘I wasn’t slabbering.’
‘Look Horace; that was our discussion about our programme and you made it dirty.’
‘I was making a valid point.’
‘That if the minister was going to insult the audience by dodging questions then the appropriate response was not another question but another insult.’
‘Well. that’s not how we work.’
‘I know it’s not how you work. It’s how Twitter works. And you’re not Twitter. You don’t own it.’
‘Look. Every failing is amplified when it’s on Twitter. You made a bad call. Let it blow over and we’ll have you back. Have you taken it down yet? Well, take it down.’
He had three hours in which to write 800 words on Prince William’s new beard so he sat down with a cup of tea after his breakfast to sketch out a few headings: rivalry with Harry; Kate and kiss rash; but some women say it enhances pleasure of intimacy, would he get away with that?
He googled ‘beards and sex’ and found a discussion on whether the bristle on a man’s chin might enhance the pleasure of cunnilingus for the recipient and tried to work out a form of words in which he could relate that to Kate without actually doing so. He got paid to be dangerous but he got dropped when he went too far.
He was interrupted in these deliberations by a call from Tom Schuster, the head of English.
* * *
‘Horace, we have a problem. That tweet of yours.’
‘I’ve got some stick about it already. Go on.’
‘The Dean is livid.’
‘What does he expect me to do about it now?’
‘You’ll at least have to accept a reprimand. I have to summon you to my office to explain the University’s policy on social media, to remind you of your obligation to uphold certain standards of conduct and to insist that you don’t repeat the offence.’
‘What if I tell you to fuck off, that it’s none of your business.’
‘Then I would have to relay that answer to the Dean. I’m trying to manage this with the least fuss. You have your own decisions to make but you might find some advantage in that approach. Think about it. Say 4 o’clock, in my office.’
Now he had two things to deal with; how to intimate that there may be erogenous considerations – yes! he liked that phrase – in the prince’s decision to grow a beard, without actually suggesting that the future queen enjoyed cunnilingus – though why shouldn’t she? – and his strategy for the meeting with the head of the School of English. Clearly nuance was everything.
He felt it was a pity now that he hadn’t remembered that rule when he wrote his tweet.
When he had finished his article, forty minutes later, he had a shit and a shower and then applied himself to the strategy, listing options.
Sit quietly and accept a reprimand but don’t apologise.
If an apology is demanded, use tactical ambiguity. Say, sorry that this has caused such a fuss, in the way that one might be sorry that the weather has turned out so badly.
If asked to make a clear apology and promise not to repeat the offence, equivocate a little and agree that the tweet was crass and damaged his own case by drawing attention to his bawdy sense of humour rather than to his incisive political acumen.
If Tom thumps the table and says, stop the messing and write a letter of apology to the Dean for embarrassing him, then argue that freedom of expression is vital for a writer.
If there is deadlock, resign.
And he considered there were two reasons why Tom would not want him to resign; he cost the university nothing, since he was on a sponsored fellowship and, being a journalist he might create a mighty stink in the press.
Having thought all that through, Horace decided that he was in a strong position.
* * *
The walls of Tom Schuster’s office were all lined with shelves and the shelves were full of books. There were books on the windowsills and books on the mantelpiece, and the fireplace itself was packed with books. There were books on the little coffee table and books on the sofa. There were books at his desk and books on the chair and books under the chair. So Tom had to fuss about and clear space before he could offer Horace a seat. He had not foreseen that need because his head was full of books too.
‘I hope you are well’, he said, his stoop and evasive eye betraying his apprehension.
‘Well, I’m a bit anxious about this’, said Horace, ‘so let’s hear it.’
‘Oh, my God; you’re not going to resign, are you?’
‘Well, let’s see.’
Tom cleared space for Horace and sat opposite him. He then took a sheet of printed paper from a cardboard folder and slid it across the table surface to him. It was a print out of several recent tweets and Facebook comments by Horace. One of them was underlined, the jibe about Ed Min and the unlikelihood of him recognising a rational argument.
‘I have to tell you that this caused some discombobulation upstairs.’
‘Well, I think I have to draw your attention to a clause in your contract which says that you will not do anything to tarnish the good name of the university.’
‘And do you have a list of specific actions that, if performed by one of your staff might have that effect? Or is it always for me to make that judgement?’
‘You in the first place, the University in the second.’
‘So you could decide that I had tarnished the good name of the university by wearing jeans that you don’t like.’
‘I think that is a little unlikely.’
‘But that clause doesn’t mean a thing. What’s next?’
‘You have to sign this form which acknowledges that you have been formally reprimanded for breaching your contract and undertaking not to do so again.’
‘But you have already told me that there is no way for me to know whether a future action or piece of writing will breach your rules.’
Tom sighed. The sense of what Horace was saying was plain.
‘Just play the game, Horace, and let’s get this over with.’
Tom took pity on a busy and exasperated academic doing a difficult job and, lifted a pen to sign the form then stopped.
‘This is daft. I’d be signing away my right to write anything without checking first that it didn’t offend the Dean.’
‘You would just be affirming that you accept a clause in your contract which you have already signed.’
‘I didn’t know then that it could be used to censor me.’
‘Now, that’s a bit strong. It’s not censorship to ask you to exercise a little decency and discretion. And I must remind you that the university has a right to employ who it pleases.’
‘Censorship is always chiefly concerned with what is borderline and outrageous, indecent and indiscreet. That’s where it starts.’ Then adopting a slightly grandiose, speech-at-the-dock sort of tone, Horace said, ‘Tom, out of respect to my calling and that of my fellow writers I must regretfully request that you take this form back to the Dean and, on my behalf, invite him to shove it up his hole.’
* * *
Now Horace would have to talk to his sponsor, Ellen Lamb the Director of the Cahir Lamb Society, which paid him £20,000 a year to fulfil the duties of a fellowship in the name of her writer/journalist grandfather, by teaching at the university and maintaining the reputation of the old satirist and communist, who had written barely a page of coherent prose in his whole life.
‘I think I am about to get sacked.’ Horace was hoping for a bit of support here.
‘What did you do? Steal the silver from the top table?’
‘I posted an obscene tweet.’
‘Oh, no, Horace; that’s about the worst thing you could have done.’
‘But why? If I’d said the same thing from the stage of the Great Hall I’d have got a round of applause.’
‘Maybe. But people would have trusted you to have thought about what you were going to say if you had been making a formal speech. On twitter they assume you were pissed and lost control of yourself.’
‘So writing is legitimately shocking if it is contrived and manipulative but not if it is passionate and honest and immediate.’
‘Well, to pass that test it has to be particularly clever. Granda used to say that the best writing is laboured over for hours to sound as if it was dashed off in a hurry.’
‘So you are not going to give me any cover here?’
‘I wouldn’t think so. Universities have had about enough of clever dicks sounding off on social media and making asses of them. A year ago you might have got away with this. By now they need to make an example of someone and that role has fallen to you.’
‘So you admit it’s not that serious?’
‘Horace’, she said, ‘no one is going to back you on this. You blurt out an obscenity on Twitter and you live to regret it. That’s a moral law that everybody understands now after so many others before you made twats of themselves in the same way. Sorry. You’re on your own.’
* * *
Horace went to his office in the School of English and checked his emails. He had a small pile of essays to mark and lectures to prepare for his module on Commentary and Analysis. He liked this office and he liked some of his students. He even liked Tom Schuster but he had known he wasn’t going to be here for more than a couple of years and that he would have to go back to making most of his living from freelance journalism.
His next move was either to resign in protest at censorship, or just sit still and wait for the University to sack him and he didn’t like that either, so he wrote a press release on his own behalf, protesting at censorship of writers by the School of English and sent it to Traffic and KYTV and a few local radio stations.
His phone rang as he was leaving.
‘Horace McAuley? I’m Chrissie Wilson, a researcher on Time and Style on KYTV.’
‘Hi, Chrissie. What can I do for you.’
‘We want to run a story about your spat with the University; you know, your Tweet. If we can put together a panel to discuss this, would you be happy to take part?’
‘Horace, have you any other ideas who we should ask?’
‘Why not try Carson Healey. He’s an internationally published poet who has done stuff on the mechanics of the penis. Or you could ask Harry Long who has written about Varieties of Fetish. Ask either of them if they’d let the Dean censor their work. Or you could get a literary critic in and ask what it would do to the international reputation of this university if it was known that it was hiring writers and then setting limits to their freedom of expression.’
‘Oh, that sounds good.’
Tom and the Dean both declined invitations to take part but watched the programme together.
‘Today on Time and Style, does calling yourself a writer absolve you of the responsibility to keep it clean. We ask where freedom of expression meets taste and decency.
The cue for our discussion is the university’s response to a tweet by Time and Style regular, Horace McAuley. Last week, during a broadcast interview with the minister of Education, Horace tweeted an obscenity. Now, some of you may not want to see this or let your children see it, so if that’s the case just look away now.’
And on screen appeared an image of the tweet: The Min Ed wouldn’t know a rational argument if it knelt down in front of him and sucked him off #twatfeatures.
‘Right, if you chose not to read that, let me say that it’s punchline derives from a coarse, street language term for oral sex, and we don’t mean down the phone. Horace, what possessed you? Were you drunk?’
Horace said, ‘Well, what possessed you just to make that quip about not meaning down the phone? Is that in your script or were you winging it a bit? That’s what this is all about. Twitter is a medium for immediate, let’s say, impulsive expression. What gets people into trouble is that they use the medium as it is most naturally to be used, and they say things they wouldn’t say, for instance, in the broadcast media or in an academic paper. But that isn’t understood and we get this panic about it. What we need is a wider understanding that Twitter is a conversation without limits; taking part is like entering a conversation in a pub with the door open and other people listening. Not the whole world, by the way, usually just a few dozen. What we need is an understanding that what is said on Twitter is said in a different register to that which people will use on television or in print, and in stead of trying to choke that off, we should be glad of how it expands our dealings with each other.’
‘So’, said Carl. ‘That’s an argument for Twitter being a medium that operates to different rules. But you know the libel laws. You know the hate laws. Can you ignore them on Twitter?’
‘Of course not. Nor did I.’
‘And if you at home want to comment on the programme, please use our hashtag, TnS. Our next guest is Harry Long. Harry is author of Cloud Sex and The Pearl on the Tip. Oh, that’s a pun; I didn’t get that. Harry, do you think universities are right to be concerned about obscenity in the writings of those they employ?’
‘Well, they are in a similar position to the producers of this programme. Would we accept that the Dean would be right to try to get rid of an academic who had, for instance, urged the beheading of adulterers, or the assassination of a political leader? Would we say they had a right to censure – and censor – expressions of hatred, or of paedophilia? I think we would all be a bit surprised if that sort of stuff was coming out of the universities and no one was trying to stop it. It’s not about allowing everything; it’s about drawing the line.’
‘And who draws it?’ snapped Horace. ‘I draw it. I can’t be running to the Dean with every article or tweet I write, asking him to check it’s ok by his standards of decency. I make that call myself. All the Dean has to do is decide afterwards whether I have offended his sensibilities. And when he makes a judgement against something which is obscene but legal, as my tweet was, then he puts all writers in fear that they can be inside the law and yet be sacked.’
‘Well, we asked the Dean to appear on the programme ..’
* * *
John Crimson, the Communications Director, monitored the Twitter feed about the programme.
Horace wouldn’t know discretion if it sucked HIM off #TnS
If his dick was as big as his ego he’d have had to bring it with him in a wheelbarrow. #TnS
Academics have nothing to say anyway. #TnS
Does anyone know if the Dean has ever been sucked off? #TnS
Would Horace be in this mess if he’d said fellatio? He was just a bit too crass. There’s ways of doing this. #TnS
Agree. He should have used the language of the academics. Then no one would have understood him anyway. #TnS
Horace’s mistake; it’s now all about him now and not the MinEd. That old bastard is off the hook. #TnS
Who gives a fuck anyway? #TnS
Sorry folks, but I don’t want my kids taught by a foulmouthed wee shit like that. #TnS
I just looooove wee Horace. He’s the business. #TnS
He supervised my dissertation last year. Luv him to bits. #TnS
He’s up his own hole. Thinks he’s God’s gift. #TnS
Is there nothing more important to be talking about? #TnS #Syria.
If weekly pay div by 168 doesn’t work out at the union rate they haven’t bought your free time and have no say in what you do outside work. Fuck them. #TnS
It’s a university. It’s supposed to believe in free expression. #TnS
No. it’s a university, it believes in rational argument, not in firing smutty insults at people.#TnS
Crimson saw that few if any of these were crossing the television screen. The Dean wouldn’t even know about them unless someone told him. He was going to have to call him.
After the programme Horace walked home alone in the rain, wishing he hadn’t started all this, wishing that if he was to be a martyr for free speech the cause would have been worth it. Everyone knew the Min Ed was an ignorant twerp and that the Dean was a fascist. He’d achieved nothing by stating the obvious.
Tom Schuster squirmed on his seat and worked up the courage to speak as if he was trying to break wind and then said, ‘He does have a point.’
‘Yes’, said the Dean. ‘But I want our people to err on the side of caution. We can have the breakthroughs in medicine and digital technology at this university. Let other institutions have the breakthroughs in obscenity. I’m sure they’ll be proud of them.’