June 04, 2009

From The Indie: Now It's Bullying

Joan Smith: Padel has been bullied for her frank ambition

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Blimey, have you noticed how quickly people get on their high horse these days? A week ago, the great and the good leapt on their steeds and galloped after Ruth Padel, newly elected Oxford professor of poetry, forcing her to stand down after only nine days in the post.

Padel's offence was not admitting that she had alerted two journalists to the fact that her main rival, the poet Derek Walcott, had been accused of sexual harassment on a couple of occasions. Earlier this month, Walcott withdrew as a candidate, claiming he was the victim of a smear campaign.

It was silly of Padel to hide the fact that she'd sent the emails, but hardly a hanging offence. It isn't as if the accusations were new or had never been published; they've appeared in a book and Walcott settled out of court with a former student. But last weekend, some of Padel's erstwhile supporters had a fit of high-mindedness and started harrumphing about how she'd let them down. Padel duly resigned, admitting to "a grave error of judgement" but denying that she was responsible for a wider campaign against Walcott.

Does any of it matter? I don't suppose there are huge numbers of people who really care who holds the Oxford professorship of poetry or who could name Padel's predecessor. I certainly don't think it's the subject of heated discussions in pubs, where people are far more likely to be fulminating about MPs' expenses. But I do think there are parallels between the two controversies, and one of them is a public mood which is puritanical and uniquely unforgiving.

I know Padel slightly and invited her to join the PEN Writers in Prison Committee when I chaired it. I always found her friendly, hard-working and decent, and I'm dismayed at the way she's been vilified in the past few days.

Padel has done more than most to popularise poetry in this country, not least in a weekly column she wrote for this newspaper, and no one doubts that she would have done a brilliant job as poetry professor. She admitted she had done something wrong, had the guts to say so at a press conference and went on to appear in public at one of the country's biggest literary festivals.

In the present mood, none of that is enough. It used to be a common complaint that no one in public life ever apologises; now people spend their time doing little else, but it is only a stage in an apparently unstoppable cycle of blame, shame and humiliation.

Padel's supporters could have accepted her apology and assumed that she had learnt from a bruising experience; they might even have acknowledged, silently, that the academic world has always been characterised by the most deadly rivalries.

Ambition is not exactly unknown in Oxford and I suspect that Padel's biggest mistake was to let hers show. On the whole, men are smarter about that; I've lost count of how many times I've heard a man who was positively gagging for a big job protest that it was a burden he had decided to accept only reluctantly. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has happened to a woman, and the spectacle of the boys' club closing ranks against her isn't exactly edifying.

It's a measure of the times we live in that even the election of a rather obscure (to most of us) professor of poetry can be parlayed into a media storm. It may be that most poets would like to go back to being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but in such a febrile atmosphere I don't hold out much hope.


- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. janarchy

    Excellent piece. Joan’s as Insightful as ever. And she’s led by her own example, too, in not turning public figure baiting into a media blood sport. How long before the ducking stool comes back to village ponds? If the mud sticks, and all that…

    05 Jun 2009, 01:25

  2. ‘Boy’s clubs closing ranks!!!’ To so overtly try to peg an opponent as a sex abuser is the most difficult and damaging accusation there is and shows an abuse of the sensitivity that accusations like that should be treated with.

    TO behave like this to get such a high profile job is utterly shameful. It also gives too much credence to the idea that women rarely get their jobs on merit and threatens what some see as a fragile position.

    For you to then view that she should be ‘let off’ because she is an ambitious female is despicable; you should be ashamed.

    Sexual and physical abuse can be waived in any man’s face almost without question (if you want a classic case of the use of the word ‘abuse’ to try to rally people against someone behaving normally have a look at Andy Kershaw’s case) and I’m glad that in this case that this behaviour has damaged Padel’s career.

    I lost a promotion to manage a processing team in a bank where another candidate for a job made whispering campaigns of abuse against me and other male ‘rivals’ for a position, not formally of course.

    The decision was made in her favour despite my team supporting my application and my having put many procedures in place that improved performance including a full departmental restructure and work area redesign. My team independent of me actually recommended me to the overall project leader who said that ‘he now wasn’t as sure as he had been’ – i believe because of these whispers.

    This person gained the position as manager of the department, was instantly out of her depth and was eventually pulled away from the job because of a sharp and almost irrecoverable drop in performance. Largely due to an autocratic and ‘favourites and minions’ management style. Some of which, a ‘sidekick’ confessed to me had consisted of telling her one day that everyone liked her then telling her that individuals hated her on some days and on others telling her that, for example ‘she’s only being nice to you becaus she hates you’ etc.

    She then went on to make further allegations of sexism and discrimination with reference to her demotion – but the department performance figures were hardly sexist!

    I was moved away from the team to be given an assistant managers role in a team that then went on to out perform other teams in the same way my previous team had. Later I was told that I had been moved ‘under a cloud’ though that had never been explained to me.

    After I left for another area of the business, I heard stories of a department manager who had tried to lever a promotion from a board member by making an accusation of sexual assault. (he had ‘bumped into her and touched her’ on the dancefloor at a company event. The director called her bluff and pulled her in to discuss her allegation. Though I was incredibly privileged to find this out, and really shouldn’t have, she officially asked for a promotion to ‘settle’ the case!!!

    A quick and evidence-based sacking continued. And again, a good thing too.

    Behaviour like this is shameful because it is bad for all concerned and for performance – people don’t mind seeing good people promoted, what is most unsettling for an organisation is the seemingly irrational promotion of people who have not performed – this does two things – minimises trust and promotes underperforming and political behaviour – as this is seen as ‘what works’.

    17 Jun 2009, 14:10

  3. I despair to see eminent figures in poetry cause such damage to our fragile art. As if there needed to be more reasons to keep poets sidelined.

    22 Jul 2009, 17:23

  4. Amrita

    Nice Post!

    12 Sep 2009, 08:07


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