A week in the life of a media antagonist

By Oliver Pink

8th September 2017

Louise Richardson is worried about her profile.

Which is odd, considering. This is a woman who has previously been lionised as a national success story by Irish Times, hailed by the Financial Times as a bold thinker and praised by the Guardian for tackling elitism.

And, this week, it was announced that Oxford University, at which she serves as vice chancellor, is to enjoy its second year atop the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, beating Harvard, Stanford and old rival, Cambridge.

Surely, you’d forgive even the most seasoned media specialist for pushing her on stage to take a bow.

But Richardson either has a taste for controversy or is suffering a degree of wanton madness usually reserved for Tim Bell and UKIP councillors. In other words, she either understands the media inside out or hasn’t so much as picked up a newspaper for the past decade.

What’s she been up to?

What hasn’t she? In the past month, she has been outed as a ruthless capitalist, a free speech hero (a reliable euphemism for someone who defends abhorrent views), a withering critic of the BBC and a distaste for progressive millennial culture that would make Peter Oborne wince.

  • When asked why she was paid so much, she defended her £350,000 salary by pointing out that her contemporaries in the United States earn almost three times as much.
  • When pressed, she added that while her pay was high compared with that of senior staff, “compared to a footballer or a banker, it looks very different”. Poor lamb.
  • When Michal Hussain set her pay packet against rapidly rising tuition fees, she accused the BBC of suggesting she should earn less than her male predecessor.
  • When Lord Adonis and Jo Johnson warned against excessive pay levels, she accused “tawdry politicians” of attempting to bring down the great institutions of Britain. “I’m not going to get into individual name calling,” she volunteered to Hussain—hence managing rather effectively to call some names.
  • When the media echoed these concerns, she dismissed them as mendacious.
  • When students came to her, uncomfortable at the homophobic attitudes of lecturers at Oxford, she replied “it is not my job to make you comfortable” and suggested that the situation presented a prime opportunity for debate. “It’s not a human right not to be offended,” she reminded them at the Times Higher Education summit on Tuesday.

Such is the vitriol levelled at her ‘snowflake’ students (who knew Rod Liddle was moonlighting as a vice chancellor?) you’d expect her to at least curry some favour with a raft of no-nonsense ‘I-say-what-I-like-and-I-like-what-I-say columnists in the British press.

But if there’s anything the media dislikes more than uncapped immigration and gender-neutral toilets, it’s a haughty female in a position of power who seems not to give a fig what they write. And you don’t have to look too far back into history to know what happens to people who mount attacks on the British media.

So, within a week…

The Sun scoffed at Richardson’s “childlike grip on reality” calling for the former Harvard and Radcliffe professor to go back from whence she came.

Stephen Glover for the Daily Mail was more scathing, branding her a “shameless university chief with a huge sense of entitlement,” adding that she “fights in a remarkably dirty fashion… showing an alarming absence of rigour when throwing insults around.” (With extra venom, Glover excavated an ancient quote where Richardson admits she was “so ‘brainwashed’ at school that she would have joined the IRA in a heartbeat.”)

“Next time she tries to defend her £350,000 salary I suggest she corners someone from the economics department for advice.” sneered Ross Clark in the Spectator.

Sonia Sodha in the Guardian, meanwhile, poured scorn on the footballer analogy noting its similarity to Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cat’ election campaign strategy: “distract voters from the real problem by chucking in something more sensational.”

On Thursday, Jo Johnson took to the stage at the Universities UK annual conference to suggest that Richardson should not be in the job if she wants to be paid like a banker or a footballer. He later twisted the knife with an announcement that universities would face a fine unless they could justify paying their vice chancellors more than the Prime Minister.

Neha Shah for the New Statesman eviscerated Richardson’s stance on homophobia, arguing that it is increasingly difficult to “justify such a large paycheck” when such a “fundamental part of her job” is wilfully ignored. Richardson’s comments “demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding,” agrees Naomi Packer in the i.

But it was history doctoral student Jack Doyle who scored the quote of the hour, telling the BBC: “I’m not interested in entertaining the idea that my existence is a debate, or that an academic setting dignifies homophobia.” (His petition calling for an apology amassed over 2,600 signatures from Oxford staff, students and alumni.)

A tabloid stooge?

For the vice chancellor of the best university in the world, Richardson isn’t much of a fast learner. Forced into an apology, she delivered it late, showed little humility and – yet again – laid the blame squarely at the door of the media.

The populist tide might forgive her assault on liberal culture. Oxford’s reputation will probably survive its tacit dismissal of its fee-paying students.

But Richardson? Her extraordinary week-long rampage has handed editors a rare gift. For the populist right, she is the unacceptable face of the educated elite: overpaid, unapologetic and condescending. For the resurgent left, she is a one-woman argument against rising tuition fees.

Good luck, Louise. You’ll need it.