Malice in Wonderland - An Oxbridge Fantasy

I have never written a letter to the BBC’s Points of View, and I hope never to write a letter to the BBC’s Points of View. Mostly because the kind of people who write letters to the BBC’s Points of View are repressed, Mary Whitehouse-esque, hyper-paranoid, self-important idiots who take a quasi-orgasmic pleasure in hearing their own awful opinions read out on National Television. However, my resistance to joining this League of Extraordinary Wankers was severely tested by a program I watched on BBC Two last night entitled ‘Wonderland – Young, Bright and on the Right’. Or as I quickly rechristened it, ‘Young, Bright and Talking Shite’. The program followed Joe Cooke and Chris Monk, two highly Conservative, state school educated students who, having taken up places at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, were attempting to gain traction in the slippery world of Conservative student politics.

Now, I could easily spend a thousand or so words berating the cluelessness and naivety of these two young men. Monk especially came across as an idiot of the highest order, a confused, idiotic boy without the slightest shred of social skills. But why? Why do that? That was what the documentary did. It sneered at these ridiculous figures, adopting an almost entirely ad hominem line of attack; look at these ridiculous men with their ridiculous voices (in Joe’s case, an affected accent to hide his Yorkshire one), their ridiculous clothes. The documentary’s exploitation and ridicule of Monk in particular was at times disturbing, allowing him to expose his failings and delusion in front of a national audience. Their choice to focus upon young men negated any legitimacy of its purpose; I am all for the exposure and targeting of arrogance and pomposity in all walks of life, especially in politics. But these men (Or should I call them boys? They are hardly full grown men, and therein lies the problem) weren’t really arrogant or pompous; they were scared, they were nervous, and they were pretending to be something they weren’t. When I first went up to university I too was a mass of contradictions, a nervous wreck, a slightly ridiculous and very pretentious figure caught between the childhood I had left behind and the enticing but frightening world I was just entering into. Although I do credit myself with having better control over my hand gestures than Monk, who in once scene tried to illustrate a particularly vociferous point by writhing, arms akimbo in a credible impersonation of a man in an electric chair (N.B. I’m not going to refrain completely from taking the piss out of these guys).

The net result was that the documentary possessed the same qualities of sneering and arrogance as it claimed to discern and ridicule in its subjects. What’s more, it was incredibly lazy television. With little to no imagination, it simply trained the camera on these young boys (I still haven’t decided what to call them) and let them trip over themselves. It really didn’t take much effort – the scene in which Monk was packing to return to Cambridge in front of a bookcase holding two very large books each with the title ‘HITLER’ prominently emblazoned upon the spine was comic genius, worthy of Chris Morris. The image, also, of Joe’s portrait of Margaret Thatcher in a box next to a mounted hare’s head called ‘Cecil’ also produced one of the funniest images I’ve seen in a long time. But at no point did it really engage with the boys, discovering what had driven them to be Conservatives, explaining why they were so preposterous. Instead, it just sat back, pointed a finger and laughed at them for an hour. I could do that; just give me a camera crew and a couple of grand for expenses.

These gripes regarding substance and ethics, however, are nothing compared to what the documentary did for Oxbridge in general. More specifically, this documentary did for Oxbridge access what a bullet once did for JFK’s head. The whole programme featured not a single student (except for the student journalist who cropped up and turned out to be the biggest, preening, arrogant tosser of the entire documentary) who wasn’t a right wing caricature. Few voices or faces of moderation were presented and the casual viewer unfamiliar with Oxbridge was left with the impression that the two Universities were populated entirely by twats of this ilk. Having spent four very happy years at Cambridge, I can safely say this is not the case. Indeed, this is not even the case in CUCA (Cambridge University Conservative Association), several members of which I know (‘Some of my best friends are Tories!’). I may disagree with their views and policies and even personally dislike some of them, but this does not make all of them fundamentally awful, pompous people, contrary to the impression this documentary tries to give.  Time and time again both universities were presented as ‘Dreaming Spire’ wonderlands, in which students spent more of their time gazing wistfully out of windows or looking like besuited weirdoes in solo punts, rather than actually doing any work. Essentially, this documentary attempted to comprehensively tar both universities with the same radically-Tory-tinged-brush. Not one mention was made of Cambridge’s brilliant Access and Outreach Scheme, nor the fact that Cambridge spends the highest amount on access of any university in England. No, instead, we were all painted as deluded weirdoes whose highest desire was to drink swan’s blood in a ritualistic orgy over an image of Margaret Thatcher. Of course this kind of thing damages Access initiatives! It damages Oxbridge’s image and presents an impression of privilege and decadence rather than the reality of hard work and indescribable effort. Shame on you, BBC.

And yet, my anger was curiously dormant. Why wasn’t I more outraged at this flagrant twisting of the truth? Because this is exactly what I expect from the media. Oxbridge has become one of the easiest targets of all. Not a summer goes by without a silly season attack on the ‘privilege’ of the universities. The mysterious aura which surrounds these two institutions is perpetuated by a self-serving media – people love stories of Oxbridge scandal and intrigue because they believe it really is a place of shadowy political dealings or Brideshead-style debauchery. And they believe that because they are fed it by the media, who have a greater interest in mining a cheap, easy and readable story out of murky half-truths than actually acknowledging that Oxbridge has made itself incredibly open and accessible to people from all walks of life, although there is, of course, still progress to be made. Indeed, the very subjects of the documentary are testament to Oxbridge’s access programs; both are state educated, and Cooke was eligible for free school meals and the first to go to university in his family. But this remarkable fact is treated by the documentary makers as just another freak-show element; how could people from such a normal background possibly turn out so weird, eh? In the failure to recognise it as what it is, the achievement is belittled.

As I type, a nerve twitches in my cheek. Points of View is calling. The desire to scream out at the sheer shoddiness of this documentary is nearly overwhelming. But I shall constrain myself to this relatively small bleat of a blog post. Besides, I’m not sure that the nation could deal with Terry Wogan reading out the words ‘quasi-orgasmic’. But perhaps even more disturbing than that is the real sense of malice in this documentary. Its mocking is aggressive; at one point they allow Monk to continue endlessly in a monologue on the responsibilities of biscuit-sourcing, a soliloquy so heart-breakingly pathetic that you fear he may have a breakdown come the end. I didn’t think it was possible to make me feel sympathy for young Tories such as Cooke and Monk, but somehow this documentary accidentally achieved that. Furthermore, its laziness of targets and its willingness to present a distorted view of Oxbridge is symptomatic of an underlying malice, a literally effortless desire to do harm to this institution. Who knows, perhaps they actually believe the very same myths their documentary is trying to peddle. Maybe we’re caught in this vicious cycle forever and will never break free.  But here’s hoping that, through the tireless efforts of Student Liaison Officers and unpaid Access volunteers across both universities, we can. 


  1. I'm actually inclined to disagree with you in that I'm not so sure that the program was intending to sneer at the people it was following. If it made them look like idiots, it was only because they were acting like idiots. However, I will agree with you in one capacity, namely that they aren't necessarily completely stupid, just confused and scared.

    Monk in particular comes across as more foolish than he does anything else. In fact, I'd say if anything he's set up thematically as being the younger version of Cooke, who seems to have realised by the end of his degree that he'd wasted three years of his life trying to please an organisation dominated by petty, venal people. His actions would have been almost commendable if it wasn't for the fact that he took them purely as a face-saving move. OUCA members have been doing what he brought to light for years. I actually have an acquaintance who attended a freshers meeting of the society where racists songs were sung for instance. It's not as though any of this was secret, and a person as involved as Cooke was would have known about it. If he found it so reprehensible, why didn't he resign earlier? The answer is obvious, but I think this fact needs to be underlined. However, there were and still are worse people in OUCA than him.

    I do agree with your sentiment that the programme did a poor job of highlighting the fact that these people represent relatively small minorities even within their own societies. They do, however, exist, and I don't necessarily think this programme's committed a sin by drawing attention. It does damage access, but it does it more by accident than design.

    The fact remains that Oxford and Cambridge put more emphasis on access than any other universities in the country by a significant margin, and draws a growing majority of its students from state schools. The general public, however, is not aware of the money and time invested, or the pressures which the universities have been put under in order to achieve it (to the point, in Oxford's case, of sometimes significantly reducing the grade-requirements on conditional offers made to state school students). And while you're right that the "exposure" of the Brideshead Regurgitated element in the media is an existing narrative that reeks of sensationalism, there's something more important to consider here.

    Politicians worked out a long time ago that cutting funding to Oxbridge and rubbishing it in the press for its "elitism" is essentially the political equivalent of a free gift. Those who do come to Oxford's defense can be safely dismissed as part of the Grand Elitist Conspiracy, and the universities struggles to defend themselves. It also doesn't help much that any university, but particularly Oxford and Cambridge, are not so much unified institutions as they are loose coalitions of warring tribes. While this goes a long way to giving them their unique character, it also makes it impossible for selective attacks (in the media and internally when it comes to things like funding for individual departments or scholarships) to be effectively defended against. Which allows for another political free gift.

    A Conservative minister speaking before an audience in Oxford itself once made plain his party's intention to "squeeze the universities until the pips squeak". It's become clear through repeated action that cutting of funding to institutions like these is both popular and costs nothing (in fact resulting in monetary gain). Oxford and Cambridge have been reduced to the status of political punching bags, and the media both profits from this and adds fuel to the fire. While this program is aiding in all this, I don't think it intended to do it deliberately. I just think it was so poorly considered that it managed to make Oxford, Cambridge, AND the BBC, three institutions I spend way too much of my time trying to defend, look inept, ridiculous, and irrelevant.


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