Rising above the mob

February 12, 2015

When respected scholars enter a public debate, one would hope that their arguments uphold the same principles that underpin their research, namely accuracy and objectivity. Unfortunately, the nine signatories of the letter critical of my defence of Robert Lambert’s right to work at British universities missed an opportunity to engage in evidence-based discussion (“Who will police the police?”, Letters, 5 February).

In reminding them of the difference between opinions and facts, I urge the nine academics to lay to rest their particularistic interests, ranging from personal involvement in groups that were infiltrated by the police and private intelligence companies to long-standing anarchist and anti-capitalist activism.

Human vices manifest in all kinds of institutions and working environments, and the paedophilia scandal engulfing the British Establishment reminds us that we should keep a check on those in power. In this sense, I share the condemnation for Lambert’s mistakes during his undercover deployment and fully support the continuing investigations. But the claim that ethics “must be integral to teaching” is as true as the fact that, as of today, there is no evidence to suggest that Lambert has acted unprofessionally in the course of his teaching duties. Besides failing to grasp the difference between infiltrating the Animal Liberation Front and lecturing adult students in a university classroom, the nine signatories attribute to Lambert much more influence than he holds. This is especially true in an academic field that proliferates with hard-Left, libertarian and critical scholars who have carte blanche to challenge police and state surveillance. Legally, there is no ground for the dismissal of Lambert under UK employment law. Procedurally, academic matters are not adjudicated by media trial or mob rule.

That Lambert acted unethically during part of his police career is not disputed, but the elephant in the room is the whole system and the nature of undercover policing. Although public outrage, media sensationalism, the justified anger of spied-upon activists and the rabble-rousing of campaigners have shaped the contours of this debate, academics have a professional duty to distance themselves from emotional responses, political allegiances and vested interests.

Stefano Bonino
University of Durham

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