HOW THIS SITE GOT BANNED


Newcastle University banned my site, which was on its servers, and so I have had to go elsewhere for hosting, and buy a domain. The story of how this happened is one of mendacity, cravenness, spite, delusion, incompetence, and is really quite a lark, so I hope you'll enjoy reading about it. I don't want you to get the wrong impression of how I feel. I do not feel like a down-trodden victim. My life is not bathed in tragedy. My web-site got banned, but now it is up again. I am British, and can cope without counselling. Actually, I'm glad it happened, because it showed me how great most people are, and I got some good anecdotes about the incompetence of the media out of it.

The story of how some vegetarians tried to get my site banned but failed is told here. In short, some people using a vegetarians dating agency's web forum wrote to the University asking for my site to be banned, and the Postmaster considered their requests and politely told them no. My site was reprieved for a few months.

I was then about to leave home to cycle to the University and check my e-mail. I had my cycling helmet on, and was opening the door when I noticed a letter for me on the floor. It was from the head of the Psychology Department, saying that my e-mail address, web-site, and access to computing facilities had all been withdrawn. No warning, no offer of appeal, no negotiation, I was banned. "Ah," I thought, "I can take my helmet off, then."

I telephoned the University to try and find out what had happened. I spoke to the Postmaster. It seems that another complaint had flooded in to the University, as part of the same mini-campaign that had generated the first few complaints. This time, the complaint claimed to be from a mother of a boy/man who had been considering going to Newcastle University, but who, on reading my essay on vegetarianism, had been so offended that he (or his mum) had decided against it. That anyone would really base such a decision on my essay is so ludicrous that I had to laugh. One page on one obscure web-site that happened to be on a University server, that aired what were so obviously personal opinions, clearly labelled as such, could not possibly be used as a rational reason not to go to a particular university. Did this mother think that there were no vegetarians at Newcastle Uni, because they had been driven off by the force of my arguments? She might as well have started her letter "Dear Newcastle University, I am a nutter, and…" Would the University want to take on a boy/man who was such a weakling that he based major life decisions on how he felt about something vaguely associated with the object of his considerations, and then got his mum to write a letter? Get a grip, Britain.

The same letter had, I was told, expressed disgust that the University was hosting some of my other opinions, including the essay "What Holocaust?" There are two obvious interpretations of this: one being that the complaining mother didn't like my anti-Nazi views expressed on that page, and the other (far more likely) that she had never read the essay at all, but hadn't let this minor fact stop her from expressing outrage.

The Postmaster had defended my freedom of speech before, but this time things were different. The complaint had been sent not to him, but higher up: to the Human Resources Department (this is apparently a term superior to 'personnel') and to the Registrar. I spoke to the man at Human Resources, and he told me of the meeting at which the decision was taken. You might think that one letter coming in and making so daft a complaint would just warrant some member of admin staff's wording a quick polite rebuff, but you would be wrong. A meeting was held, attended by the senior man at Human Resources, the Professor head of the Psychology Department, the Registrar (who is the most senior administrator at the University), the Postmaster, and the Pro-Vice Chancellor (a role that I don't entirely understand, but which is certainly about as senior as it gets). That's five highly paid people. What an expensive meeting. At least one could be fairly sure that it would come to an excellent decision.

They banned me. According to the Human Resources chap I spoke to, the actual decision was taken by the Registrar, and no one demurred. Possibly this was a bit of buck-passing, but I wouldn't know. The reason was that there was a "risk of adverse publicity that might damage the University's business". It seems that the mother had pushed the right button - make the University think that it is losing customers. It doesn't matter if the complaint is mad, because a nutter's money is as good as anyone else's.

So, in the opinion of these sage men, "Someone complains about web-site, is sent polite reply, nothing happens" is potentially dynamite news that the press would gorge itself on, whereas "Major university caves in to lone complaint from vegetarian's mum and stifles free speech" is not news. The men were to be proven wrong.

I have been receiving a steady trickle of e-mails about my site over the years, almost all of them praising. No amount of praise, though, could counteract a complaint, it seemed. I never have to this day received a copy of any complaint about my site sent to the University. I have never been made aware that any complaint had a good argument. The validity of argument was never the point, you see - it was the simple fact that there were complaints.

My site was missed surprisingly quickly. Before I had even told anyone that my site was banned, people were contacting the computer people at the University asking what had happened to my site. I was a moderator of a World War Two wargaming forum, and some members of this were confused about why the site had been banned, and wrote some very good e-mails to the Uni, explaining that wargaming is a harmless hobby, and nothing over which a site should be banned.

Replies from the University sent to people explaining my disappearance that said that Nikolas Lloyd "no longer works for the University" and that my account there had "expired". The first statement suggested that I had been a salaried staff member, and that I had been sacked, and the second suggested that I hadn't been banned, but that instead the normal course of procedure had run its course. Actually my account wasn't due to expire for nearly another year. I was later offered an explanation for this misleading term: that it was the word used within the Computing Services Department for the ending of any computer account. Did they really not think that a person from outside would not read this differently?

One thing that was mentioned to me in conversations with the people who had banned me, was that had I been a full-time salaried member of staff, things would have been different. They were, it seems to me, trying to convince themselves that they were still good people, and that their hands were tied. What they were actually admitting to was that they didn't defend free speech as a matter of principle, but just when they felt they had to. The freedom of speech of associate users of the computing facilities didn't count. The real reason they banned me, I suggest, was that they thought it was the easiest thing to do. After all, I was no one of significance.

Replies sent to complaints about the disappearance of my site were inconsistent. The University kept changing its story. Some said that the page was banned because it was offensive and not funny. This was said in the face of the fact that many people very clearly found it funny, and said so. Was I being banned because the University had made a judgement on how funny I was? Some later replies from the University changed the story again, and said that it was a mistake that I had had a web-site on its servers, and that banning me was simply the correction of this mistake. The University grants access to its facilities to many people, and this access needs to be renewed periodically. Mine had been renewed six times. That's a lot of mistakes.

Another odd thing people were told in replies from the University was that no one was banning me. Apparently, because I was still free to go to an internet service provider elsewhere, my being banned from the University's servers was not actually banning. So, a smoking ban in pubs is not a ban, because people can still smoke outside, and therefore there's nothing anyone can complain about? Can you spot the logic?

Some replies even tried to disassociate the University from me to the extent that people writing in were being told that I was never a member of the University and had never been connected with it in any way. This came as a surprise to people who had studied alongside me there for years, or who had been taught by me there. I know of one apology sent out by the University, but this was in reply to just one individual. I know so much about this, because people were forwarding replies they got to me.

I told a friend/colleague (not sure if the term 'colleague' is correct if I should never have been there) in the Psychology Department that I had been banned, and he was appalled that the University had taken so craven a decision. He really got the bit between his teeth, and sent out a press release (read it here). By the end of the week, there was an article on pages 2 and 3 of the Times Higher Education Supplement, complete with cartoon (read it here). The headline was "Date-hungry veggies with a beef say nuts to website", and gives you the tone of the whole piece. It was nice that they kept it light, because this story is really quite funny. In reply to their enquiries, the University had told them that my piece was "deliberately provocative to a minority group". So, a person cannot criticise the choices made in life by others, it seems, no matter how tongue-in-cheek (unless perhaps that choice is made by the majority). I don't know how embarrassed the University was by this article, but it is difficult to imagine that this outcome seemed better that what would have happened had they not banned me.

So far, I had done near enough nothing active in response to my banishment. Others had reacted for me, and I have to say, most people I mentioned it to were far more outraged that I was. My feeling was that it was a bit miffing that my access to the Uni's computers had come to an end for so poor a reason, but I had always imagined that the time would come, and I had had a free web-site for six years, so I didn't mind that much.

Private Eye wrote a piece on the story, but this didn't see print, because the same week, it turned out that the MP John Prescott had had an affair, and this story ousted mine and I dare say several others.

I got a 'phone call from a journalist working for something called The Register. This is an on-line newspaper that I hadn't heard of, but apparently has something like ten million readers. I'm not sure how he had heard of my case, but he may have been tipped off by a friend of mine from my undergraduate days, whom I hadn't seen for years, but whom I sent my new e-mail address to, with a brief explanation of why it had to change. This guy had a blog (web-site of personal thoughts and tales, to which people can contribute), and had put an archived copy of my article on his blog (to read this page you'll have to click the option for normal founts, because the fancy format doesn't suit such a long page) and invited comments. The Register's article put a link to this page, and in one day it got a vast number of visits, and getting on for a hundred comments were posted, overwhelmingly positive in my favour.

Kaboom! My essay entered the 'blogosphere' and was read and commented on, and linked to, by countless people. I have no way of measuring how many people read my essay, and I don't believe anyone else has either, but I'm sure it is fair to say that the number is many hundreds of times the number of people who would have read my essay had it not been banned. The last estimate of the number of copies of the essay itself on the web was forty. Near enough wherever I appeared, people were taking my side. Even on such pro-veggie sites as "Vegan Porn", vegetarians were saying that they were embarrassed to be vegetarian, by the complaints made against my page. Plenty of veggies actually did see the funny side of my essay.

The number of people now bombarding the University with calls for my reinstatement was giving the University's press office quite some work to do. One reply to someone said that it was busy dealing with "this mess".

A friend used some web-space he had to collate a lot of links to matters relating to this topic. Find a copy of it here. I think he had fun putting this together. The point was to have a central internet page that showed the extent of the web interest, in order to embarrass the University into reconsidering its policy. He had another idea: to get lots of other people with University web-sites the put my essay on their site. His first move was to write to a University Apple Macintosh users' group suggesting his scheme. The University quickly got wind of this, and I was told that everyone who had the essay on his site would be banned immediately. Would they really do this? Would they really ban dozens of the University's sites? It struck me as very unlikely, but I wouldn't want to deprive many people of their sites, so I passed news of this threat on, and this idea soon fizzled.

Now something so wonderfully ironic happened, that it makes me smile every time I think of it. The vegetarian forum that started the story was attracting more attention than it wanted. The various contributors to the forum started removing their names from their contributions, until all but the guy who waded in on my side were anonymous. So many people wrote to the site deriding it for what it had done, that the forum was pulled! The Register wrote a second article covering this. So, the people who wanted my views banned from the web had now effectively been banned from complaining about me, and meanwhile my views had been widely disseminated. This is of course a terribly unfair set of circumstances, I think you'll agree. I hope, then, Dear Reader, that you will try and get the veggie forum reinstated, because these people have a right to whinge about me on-line (but not, I contend, to get my views banned). Visit this page to find out what you can do to help.

And so the story had a punch line. Only when this stage was reached did some ideas occur to me to do things to get publicity. I could have approached the Newcastle Student's Union newspaper with the story when it was still fresh, and before term ended. I had missed that chance, but possibly the people who ran the paper might have got the wrong end of the stick. They might have thought that it was about vegetarianism, instead of about freedom of speech.

Someone, looking for an archived copy of my essay to put on his site, found that he was denied access to it. Thinking this odd, and being a technically knowledgeable fellow, he checked the 'robots' file for Newcastle University. It was very short, and just banned me and no one else. At first I thought that this might be normal procedure by a web-master or server manager when a site is shut down. What this file does is tell the 'spiders' what they may do and not do on a server. Spiders crawl around the web, looking for what is there, and informing search engines. Google and all the search engines use them. After a few more enquiries, though, I learned that they were going to a special effort with me. Why would they want to forbid a spider from seeing what used to be on a server and showing other people? This is the equivalent of chiselling the face of a disgraced Roman Emperor off all the statues. They wanted me not just gone but forgotten.

Time went by. I then got a call from a Newcastle paper, The Journal. Finger on the pulse as ever, they had caught up with the story only two months after it had all happened. No matter - they wouldn't mention when anything happened so it could still seem current. Was I available to be photographed that day to illustrate the story? I was. I gave a quick interview over the 'phone. I suggested people at the University they could contact for an opposing view, because it seemed that they were just going to take my word for everything. A photographer turned up. The bright sparks at the paper had got him to buy a steak for me to hold up to the camera. My idea was to go to the Town Moor and get some beef heifers (cattle) in the background. We did both. Should I have done this? We may never know, but I did get to keep the steak. It was very nice.
The article appeared the next day. My face and steak were on the cover with the words "Tied to the Steak [geddit?] - anti-vegetarian website lands researcher in hot water". Yes, of course you can't land in water, but more importantly it said that I had an anti-vegetarian site. No I don't. I have a site with nearly 400 pages, one of which is about vegetarianism, and even that is really about fake reasons for becoming veggie rather than vegetarianism itself. There I was on most of page 8. The article wasn't entirely accurate, but by the standards one might expect of a local paper, wasn't bad. They described me as a "bearded swing-dance teacher". I'm not sure what bearded swing dance is, but perhaps it explains why I don't get more pupils - I'm catering to too specialist a niche.

A company in Newcastle syndicated the story. Apparently, I ended up in The Star but I missed that. I got a call from the Daily Mail and talked for a while with a journalist who for some reason would rewrite the story. I was in the Mail the next day. This article was considerably worse than the Journal's effort. It always amazes me that the press manages to get so much wrong, and shocks me how little it cares. I'm sure a lot of people got the wrong impression. Interestingly, the on-line version of the same article was different, but still inaccurate.

The printed headline was "Vegetarians should be force-fed with lard, says academic". This includes two important falsehoods: that I am an academic, and that I think that vegetarians should be force-fed with lard. Anyone who reads my essay should spot that I never suggest that anyone should be force-fed with anything. That's not the kind of guy I am. My headline, dripping with irony, is just designed to make people think "Oo - what's that?" and click on it to find out more. The on-line version's headline was "Lecturer rebuked over essay on force-feeding vegetarians lard". This is very odd, because I distinctly remember emphasising in my telephone interview to the man who wrote the article that I am not a lecturer, and never was.

The opening words were "As a self-confessed eccentric…" Am I? That's news to me. I'd like to think that it is clear enough from my site that I don't take myself over-seriously. I know that even people who have met me have used the word 'eccentric', but to be described as a 'self-confessed eccentric' surely I would need to actually be one, and this would involve my using the word.

The article went on to get the story all the wrong way round. It said that my site had not attracted any controversy until I added the veggie essay, and that "anger spread like wildfire on the Web. As a result, the article had 500,000 hits - and before long complaints were made to the university authorities." This is completely wrong. My veggie essay had been on my site for five years without attracting a complaint. The home page of my site, before it was banned, got about 120,000 hits in six years - very few of which would have led to visits to the veggie page in the opinions section. Anger spreading like wildfire is not how I would describe the comments of a dozen vegetarian lonely hearts on a dating forum. The Mail's article suggests that I gained notoriety by being offensive on the Newcastle University web-site. Actually, I was not on the University's web-site at all, but on a personal site hosted by the University's server, and I gained notoriety when I got banned, not before. The real story is so much funnier and more interesting than the wrong one.

It seems that the intent of the Mail's journalist was to portray me as some sort of neo-Conservative nut-case, recklessly offending as many people as I could. He claimed that I compared vegetarians to the Nazis. I didn't. I did use the word 'Nazi' as part of an analogy, but this distinction, it seems, got in the way of the journalist's story (I was making the point that in 1930s Germany it was fashionable to go to Nazi rallies, and therefore that vegetarianism is fashionable is not necessarily a good thing).

All newspaper writers should be aware that words that are printed between a set of inverted commas should be exactly what someone actually said. Readers should be aware that in newspapers they seldom are. While some of the words I am quoted as saying are reasonable paraphrases of what I actually said, many bear no resemblance, and are therefore quite straightforward lies. The article has me saying "…because of what has happened it has been read by about 500,000 people. I stand by my beliefs of course, I don't think vegetarianism is the best and healthiest lifestyle choice and that is really what I was saying in the essay." Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not someone who would use such awful language as 'healthy lifestyle choice'. The number 500,000 never came from my lips. The Mail could not possibly claim its quotes to be accurate, because the 'quotes' are different in the two versions - printed and on-line. Also, in an e-mailed reply to my response to the article, they claim that the figure 500,000 came from the source that syndicated the story. Why then did they quote it as coming from me?

This will all be familiar stuff to anyone who has ended up in the papers. When I first put my site on the web, I had journalists listed as one of my top dislikes on the About Lloyd page. After this, I might nudge them a bit higher on the list, though of course not above aniseed.

The last words of the article are a quote (accuracy unknown to me) from a 'university spokesman', saying "It was all a storm in a teacup or should that be a glass of carrot juice?" I'd say that this spokesman has done his job very well. He managed to get a joke in, and he made it seem that the matter is both trifling, and more importantly, this it is about whether the essay was offensive or not. This distracts from the issue of whether the University was right not to protect free speech.

There is another outcome to this story. The same man who sent out the press release to the Times Higher Educational Supplement was concerned that a dangerous precedent might be set, and called a high-level meeting. If the University's response to a complaint was to ban a web-site immediately, where might this lead? In future, learning that sites get banned from even as few as a single complaint, all manner of nutters might write in and demand censorship. People publishing on university servers need protection. All manner of medical research, psychological research, animal research, is already contentious, and ultimately there is nothing that anyone could write that might not potentially offend someone somewhere. Indeed, offence is totally subjective. If I insist that I find the word sponge offensive, and fly into a rage whenever it is mentioned, there is no one who can empirically prove that I don't find it offensive. The meeting has now happened, and this will be the first of a few, during which a new policy will be set out to deal with complaints in future. Let us hope that Newcastle University's web-sites will be protected, and that no one else will suddenly find himself banned without warning. Let us also hope that other universities will follow Newcastle's lead. Universities, it seems, have not quite woken up to the new aspects of freedom of expression created by the internet.

The latest part of this story is that I was interviewed for local television. Journalists, it seems, get most of their stories off each other, and someone had been reading the papers. My first instinct was to refuse the interview, because perhaps this had gone far enough. I 'phoned a couple of friends for their opinions, and was persuaded to give it a go, because it would be good publicity for me in other ways - I could demonstrate my witty banter and show myself as a good person to do other things with. I should have gone with my instincts, perhaps.

Every time I have any dealing with the media, I tell myself I must be more assertive than last time, and every time I am, but I am still not assertive enough. Journalists want to tell the story as they understand it, not the truth.

They shot the interview on the Town Moor, for no good reason other than that was where the shot that The Journal took was taken. The piece was to be shot 'as live', which means that it is recorded, but shot in such a way that a stupid viewer might mistake it for a live report. The main thing was that this meant doing it all in one shot. The time budget was 90 to 105 seconds. I would have to talk quickly.

The journalist had three questions to ask me. The first was along the lines of 'don't you think that Why vegetarians should be force-fed with lard is an offensive title'. The second was roughly 'isn't comparing vegetarians to Nazis likely to cause offence?' The third was asking for an explanation of the terms 'tree-hugging' and 'leaf-eaters' that had been taken from my article. You may notice something about these questions: they are all the same. After fielding them, I would have very little time to talk about what the story was really about.

We did a few takes, not for my benefit, but the reporter's. Sometimes he fluffed his lines, and he wanted different versions to be framed with and without captions. The camera started on him, he told the viewers about the "controversial comments" I had made and made it clear that this was the crux of the story, and then he said that he was "joined by" (in the middle of the Town Moor?) me. He turned to me, the camera panned across, and the viewers at home saw me start to answer his questions. Learn from this - they will always use your first words, if they pan over to you this way, so get the most important thing in immediately, regardless of what you have been asked. Next time, I hope, I'll remember this. They cut me short, making what I said make little sense, and then cut away to some shots of a computer screen at my web-site (yes, they had edited this 'as live' piece). I had said some interesting things about censorship, about what has come of this story, and I cracked a couple of half-decent jokes, but of course all these got cut. They then cut back to me talking just before the camera panned back to the best take of the reporter rounding the thing off. He read a statement from the University, and ended saying that this had sparked a censorship row. What rubbish.

I thought I would get lots of e-mails in response to the media coverage in the newspapers and telly, but in fact I've had about five. One was from someone telling me that I was a "numpty" because I had a bad hair cut and wore leather elbow patches. One more thoughtful one was from a woman with an Indian name who had read her grandfather's Daily Mail and asked me whether I would repeat my views to an assembly of Hindus in Bradford. Reading the Mail, it is easy to forgive her for mistakenly thinking that I was intending to offend Hindus, who never make the choice to be vegetarian, but are brought up that way. Anyone reading my essay would see that it is a critique of bad reasons given by people who have chosen, generally as an adult, to become vegetarian, and that the culture I am criticising is my own: white middle-class British.

I could of course make all sorts of alterations to my essay to make it clearer what I am not saying, but stuff it, why should I? Only someone seriously lacking in humour and common sense would miss the point of my essay if they actually bothered to read it. Life is a series of tests of character, and interpreting my essay is a test for those who read it. Some people fail the test, which is sad, but I'm happy to note that the vast majority of readers passes the test very easily, so the main lesson of this affair is a cheerful one.

Special thanks to Bruce Charlton, Fraser Charlton, Robin Horton, and Rich Lockwood who all went out of their way to help. Thanks also to Quentin Campbell, the put-upon Postmaster at Newcastle University, for trying to defend my free speech, and for letting me retrieve my files before they were deleted. Thank you very much to all the myriads of people who wrote in support of my essay and web-site, both leaf-eaters and meat-eaters.

Links:

The Register's first article
The Register's second article
The veggie forum's thread (now off-line)
Dr Bruce Charlton's press release
The Times Higher Educational Supplement's article
Fraser Charlton's list of web-links on this affair
The almost perfectly fact-free article in the Daily Mail
Richard Lockwood's blog, featuring many comments (you'll need to select normal founts)
The first (failed) attempt to have me banned
The silly essay that started the whole thing
Reinstate the veggie forum thread! Fight for freedom!


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