Free speech gets bounced out of the Oxford Union
Wednesday 19 October 2005
Until, that is, President Festus Mogae of Botswana arrived in town, having been invited to speak to members of the famous debating society about the state of his native land.
When a couple of guests stuck up their hands to ask awkward questions about Mr Mogae's attitude towards ethnic minorities, the Oxford-educated leader watched Special Branch eject them from the room.
A brouhaha ensued, in which security guards descended on the speakers in the manner of Labour conference bouncers. Outside the building, another group of protesters, from the pressure group Survival International - which campaigns against Mr Mogae's treatment of tribespeople - were also forcibly removed.
"I've been a campaigner since 1972 across the world, including in places like Colombia, not known for their human rights, and never been manhandled like that before," says one of their number, Survival's director, Stephen Corry.
"The Oxford Union say their guiding principles are 'diversity and outspokenness'. If so, how on earth can they go around evicting people from the room for saying what they think?"
The union's president, Chris Farmer, blamed Special Branch yesterday for the affair, saying he intended to study a security video of proceedings before taking the matter further.
* Something doesn't add up about Sharon Osbourne's latest record, a cover version of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven".
The charity singalong was originally recorded in January, to raise funds for children affected by the tsunami in South-east Asia.
But although Osbourne succeeded in getting dozens of stars - including Elton John, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins and Katie Melua - into the recording studio, no single materialised.
Yesterday, it was announced that "Tears in Heaven" will finally be released, but only as a download. More bizarrely, it will now raise funds for victims of not one, but three natural disasters: the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Kashmir.
A spokesman for Osbourne's project didn't return calls about the delay yesterday, but some smell a rat about the timing of its release.
"Sharon also has a book out right now," notes one cynic. "It's her autobiography, called Extreme, and retails at £18.99."
* The actor Nicholas Courtney - who played the Brigadier in Doctor Who for almost 40 years - is about to release his autobiography.
It's been co-written by Ted Heath's biographer Michael McManus, who recently wrote to friends and former co-stars announcing the book's glitzy launch party, at the Red Lion pub in Westminster next week.
"It'll be a pay bar, but think of this as an opportunity to buy me and the Brig a drink," reads the invitation. "Look in if you can, and bring friends and colleagues too. We'll be flogging the book and signing it too. Please pass on this information to anyone who might be interested, and encourage them to do the same."
The somewhat shameless nature of this invite has sent eyebrows skywards. "Courtney might have paid for us to have a drink," grumbles one guest. "Mind you, he always was first out of the taxi, and last to the bar."
* Moneybags Alastair Campbell and his partner, Fiona Millar, recently bought their next-door neighbour's house in Gospel Oak, north London. In September, they submitted a planning application to knock the two buildings together, thereby creating a mansion of sufficient grandness to befit their lofty status.
"Funnily enough, planning permission came through last Friday, in under six weeks," reports a neighbour. "Most people have to wait months, but then Campbell and Millar are quite the local heroes in Labour-controlled Camden."
The council denies offering "special favours" to the couple, but when Pandora called yesterday posing as a ratepayer, I was told that it would take eight weeks to process an "average" application. Curious!
* If you thought that British artists were all knock-kneed weeds who got bullied at school, think again. Unlikely though it sounds, the magazine Modern Painters has signed up various grands fromages of the arts world to play in a football tournament during the Frieze and Zoo art fairs in London this weekend.
On Saturday, in Regent's Park, such puny luminaries as the sculptor Antony Gormley and the director of Tate Modern, Vicente Todoli, will take to the pitch alongside the Royal Academy's director, Norman "Fatty" Rosenthal.
"We've said that Norman can be referee, so he doesn't have to do too much running around," reports an organiser. "We also thought the role would suit him, since he'll be settling disputes between teams of curators and artists."
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