Toxic Durham Union Society culture exposed

  • Senior DUS officers criticise Godfrey Bloom’s eleventh visit last Monday. Claiming this “draws a crowd for all the wrong reasons”

  • Reports of DUS officers allegedly joining in with Bloom’s sexist jokes

  • DUS has ignored students’ “No platform for Bloom” movement and protests

  • Former DUS President condemns use of ISIS picture and said she felt “ashamed”

  • University investigating into how they can work best with DUS

  • Exclusive report of astonishingly racist and sexist debate led by DUS officers, making reference to slavery and nonconsensual sex

  • 25/27 speakers this term are male and all the addresses are held by men

By Josh Smith 

UPDATE: Mr Richardson was acquitted of all charges against him on 12/01/16. Further details are available here.

Following the latest controversy surrounding Durham Union Society (DUS), Palatinate has investigated the deep divide within the society, which is the result of racist and sexist remarks plaguing DUS over the last two years.

DUS recently came under fire after it used a picture of ISIS terrorists to publicise a debate about Islam’s relationship with the western world.

Although the picture was removed from the event page within 24 hours, a former student, Osha Al, encouraged others to send an email to Vice Chancellor Stuart Corbridge, calling for DUS to issue a formal apology.

Napat Rungsrithananon, the current DUS President, issued a public apology, which stated: “I recognise that it was a poor choice of image, however no malice was intended, and I regret any unintentional harm it has caused.”

With national coverage of the incident reaching the Daily Mirror, some have questioned whether the blunder will have a lasting impact on the society’s reputation.

It’s also not the first time that DUS has found itself in hot water. Former UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, who attended a debate titled ‘This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Means Nothing Without the Right to Offend’, has been invited to the Union at least eleven times, despite a significant protest by students during a debate he attended last May.

Last term, a number of students protested against Bloom’s invitation to debate on feminism, shouting “No Room for Bloom!” and “Women’s rights now, no debate necessary.”

Students made their views on Bloom more than clear, with a member of Durham University Feminist Society claiming he never should have been invited because “we are giving a platform to someone who has made sexist, racist and homophobic comments.”

This was in reference to him calling an audience member a “slut” at a party conference one year and describing the squeezing of people’s backsides as “this is life” at DUS. 

[Bloom] draws a crowd for all the wrong reasons and it’s an ugly side of [DUS]

Various DUS members have spoken exclusively to Palatinate about the society’s recurring invitation to Bloom and the image this is giving the society.

Kat Hind, a Castle third-year, who has been associated with the DUS for the last two years, said: “It seems bizarre to have the same speaker coming back so often, it’s not exactly giving members, who pay a large amount for their membership, value for money.

“I definitely feel that the reason for inviting Bloom back specifically is because he is controversial.

“He draws a crowd for all the wrong reasons and it’s an ugly side of [DUS].”

Arguing for the right to offend, Bloom only gave anecdotal evidence and name-dropped figures he had met.

Calling fundamentalist Christians “wishy-washy Christians” and once again referring to Africa as “Bongo Bongo land”, Bloom was certainly playing up to the “reputation of giving offence”, which he warned the audience of at the beginning of his talk.

To all those he had caused offence to, Bloom remarked: “Before you vote…I don’t give a shit.”

Giacomo Paoloni, formerIMG_0124 Durham University Labour Club Secretary, spoke to Palatinate about the ‘No platform for Bloom’ movement:

“I think Godfrey Bloom is a person whose opinions speak for themselves and he has been provided by the DUS with too much floor for his racist and sexist slurs.

“I wonder how long the relationship between Godfrey Bloom and the DUS will last with all the racist people they plan to invite.”

Such concerns follow the announcement that Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), is due to speak at DUS too.

The Union Society, however, has chosen to ignore the outrage felt by many students over Bloom’s constant appearances, which has led many students to believe the society is legitimising his views.

During the talk last May, a member of the audience stood up to condemn DUS for its decision to invite Bloom and was consequently ordered out by President Rishiraj Goenka.

Angela Towers, a member of the No More Page 3 Campaign, who spoke against Bloom at the debate last year, described online how he supposedly infatuated certain DUS officers:

“The adoration of Bloom continued and blossomed into boys-club back patting, and bonding over e-cigarettes.

“In all honesty I think he’s a dangerous man, and the (mostly male) students’ reaction to him was, for me, quite scary.” 

The adoration of Bloom continued and blossomed into boys-club back patting, and bonding over e-cigarettes

Similarly, Paoloni informed Palatinate that he heard of Bloom making “dirty jokes on women getting rough compliments on the streets” to “get all the other lads laughing”.

Paoloni also states that a few DUS officers allegedly provoked students at the protest last May by holding up ‘Vote for UKIP’ placards.

This dissatisfaction at Bloom’s appearance was not only expressed by protestors, but also from those at the top of DUS.

Lucy Warden, a former President of DUS, told Palatinate: “I personally had no desire to see Godfrey Bloom speak at any event, so I did not attend any DUS events to which he was invited.”

On the recent controversy surrounding the publication of a picture of ISIS terrorists to publicize a debate on Islam, Warden condemned the current officers: “The ignorance, sloppiness and, above all, privilege that pervades the Union Society’s current leaders and, dare I say, Durham in general, came to a fore with that debate picture.

“It made me ashamed of the University and society I have spent so much of my time championing and defending.”

Warden called “leftist” Presidents like her a “rare breed”. 

Speaking anonymously to Palatinate, a senior General Committee member said: “It’s all one revolting cabal. 

It made me ashamed of the University and society I have spent so much of my time championing and defending

“They try to justify their repugnance with the sad justification of ‘controversy’ when in fact they care little for debate.

“They are all close friends who have an utter contempt for those around them and anybody that tries to challenge them.”

Although DUS is independent of the University and has its own board of trustees, the University reassured students that they had “communicated [their] concerns to the board”, but said nothing of the “investigating” the University were carrying out, as mentioned in Professor Corbridge’s reply to Osha Al.

Daniel Cain-Reed, Senior Student Representative for Hatfield College, thought that “[DUS] wouldn’t get away with as much if [it] didn’t have as much autonomy”.

President-elect Emily Beighton also caused a stir after proposing a debate on criminal anonymity in her manifesto.

Certain DUS officers have criticised this proposal, given her friendship with a former DUS secretary, who was charged with accounts of sexual assault and rape in May. 

called this decision “inappropriate and insensitive” and thought that “this could appear to many as certain members using the student society to further a personal agenda”.

Palatinate has also uncovered notes on the Farewell Debate of Easter Term 2014, ‘This House Believes the British Empire Was a Force for Good’. 

Despite being proposed as a 5993871968_714caa6e49_bcomedy debate, many of the arguments were highly inappropriate and incredibly racist.

References were allegedly made to the Germans and Dutch as S&M people, and the audience was told that the British were “too weak with the rod in colonial pursuits.”

After debating with President Rishiraj Goenka, one speaker suggested that there was still a language barrier after decolonisation, and that he “didn’t hear a word of his speech”.

Following this, the speaker said: “There are still gaps in [member’s name omitted]’s comprehension of the English language…So it seems that [they] still need to brush up on the word ‘no’, whether it’s coming from the DUS or some girl in Klute…”  

Many have seen this as a joke about non-consensual sex.

As confirmed by a recording of the debate, the last speaker also made fun out of the institution of slavery:

“The British Empire ended the Slave Trade as was alluded to, I believe, by [name omitted]. And I point out that that was an extremely profitable business. Nice work Britain imposing your civilised views on everyone else.”

The Chair was also forced to censor reference to a “lovely concentration camp” in South Africa.

As a result, an audience member is said to have stood up and condemned the debate for its “tacit racism” and “slut-shaming”.

The same member told the President: “I’m disappointed in the way you conducted yourself”. This statement was consequently removed from the minutes of the debate. 

An audience member is said to have stood up and condemned the debate for its “tacit racism” and “slut-shaming”

Palatinate has learned that various DUS officers made formal complaints and wished for the debate to be cancelled. Even though the debate was voted down 20-8, the President ignored the General Committee’s wishes and kept the debate in place.

Warden said: “I again did not wish for it to go ahead, and thus did not attend it when it did.”

According to the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Expression in Relation to Meetings or Other Activities on University Premises, DUS can invite who they want to speak as long as they are “sensitive to [the University’s] increasingly diverse and inclusive community.”

However, males, usually white and right-wing, dominate the list of speakers.

Out of 27 external speakers for the coming term, 25 are male. There are 4 debates where women will not speak at all, and men are delivering all the addresses.

On this matter, Hind said: “The fact that people don’t understand the need for a safe space for women, or that they can’t understand that this is a key way to start balancing the gender split in the male dominated sport, baffles me.” 

After the debate on Islam last Friday, a female Anthropology student defended this gender imbalance: “Women aren’t related to all the debates.”

Another student said “it’s less likely for women to be involved, when it comes to Islam”, while another called the lack of women “pervasive sexism”.  

Women aren’t related to all the debates

Andrew Lloyd, former DUS President, defended the current President’s choice to invite mainly men: “People think that you can email a speaker and he will come, sadly it’s a numbers game.

“Every presidential election I have seen people campaign saying they will get the best and the brightest in the country. But after several hundred emails and countless hours of work, you really have to settle on the best you can get.”

When asked what it thought of the gender imbalance and apparent right-wing bias, the University said: “Durham University embraces freedom of expression within the law and welcomes open and challenging debate on controversial issues.”

When asked whether it was investigating how best to work with DUS, in light of these discoveries, the University simply said: “The society is an independent charity with its own board of trustees.”

Palatinate repeatedly tried to contact Napat Rungsrithananon, the current DUS President, to on some of the issues in this article. He refused to and ignored further messages sent to him.

Rungsrithananon also refused to on the controversy surrounding the ISIS picture. Palatinate has received reports from an inside source at the General Committee meeting last Wednesday that he “palmed off concerns and resorted to dodging questions” when asked about the Islam event and women’s representation.

Photograph: James Boobier

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