He's a poet, though you might not know it. Now Paulin the controversialist incurs a judge's wrath

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The Independent Online

He describes himself as an academic and poet, though few can quote a single line of his verse. He is certainly a face of BBC arts programming, appearing regularly on Newsnight Review to give his views on the latest films, books and plays.

But it is clearly hard for a poet to confine himself to commenting on culture. And Tom Paulin has recently been seeking bigger stages. Earlier this month he was reported to have told an Egyptian newspaper in an interview about the Middle East that "Brooklyn-born Jews" who became settlers in the occupied territories "should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them".

Yesterday he returned to the rather more parochial surroundings of Reading Crown Court, where a three-week case about alleged racism at Oxford University concluded.

Judge Jonathan Playford decided that the case brought against Oxford University by one of Mr Paulin's students was "mischievous". Indeed, he went further. In dismissing the case because of insufficient evidence, he said Dr Paulin had left threatening and ambiguous messages with his Oxford college, saying it faced "a serious race complaint and unfavourable publicity".

He also criticised Dr Paulin and his student, Nadeem Ahmed, for not making it clear from the outset that the complaint was racially based and against an individual.

Lawyers for Mr Amhed had accused Dr Friedrich Zimmermann, the Oxford professor at the centre of the case, of "coarse and outrageous racism" and of insulting Mr Ahmed by calling him dyslexic. Mr Ahmed, 34, also claimed Dr Zimmermann had passed a beginner in Arabic while he, an experienced student, had failed.

Although Dr Paulin was said to have made some 200 phone calls regarding the case, he did not once approach Dr Zimmermann. "He did not try to speak to Dr Zimmermann, as he heard he could be a difficult man and thought it would be counter- productive," Judge Playford said, adding that Dr Paulin had been "excitable and may have had his own axe to grind regarding Dr Zimmermann".

Judge Playford said there was no evidence of unfair discrimination against Mr Ahmed, racial or otherwise, and accused him of being hypersensitive. However, he criticised the university's "flawed" examination procedures.

Mischievous, excitable, threatening. These are not descriptions usually heard in a court of law about Oxford University academics. But few academics have such overt and provocative political ideologies as Mr Paulin; an ideology that is receiving more scrutiny than his poetry ever has.

At the recent British Press Awards, he accused the comic turn, John Fortune and John Bird, of failing to expose the "Zionism" of new Labour. "This is the only material we have," the bemused pair replied, at which Paulin was reported by one national broadsheet to have turned away, muttering "wankers".

That was tame stuff compared to his televised debate with Germaine Greer about the role of British paratroopers at Bloody Sunday. "They were thugs sent in by public schoolboys to kill innocent Irish people; they were rotten racist bastards," he said.

Yet his views are not always predictable. In 1996 he criticised the London Review of Books for the censoring of T S Eliot on the grounds that he was the author of anti-Semitic "hate poems".

Until the "Brooklyn Jews" outburst, Paulin-speak has only been of interest to a small academic circle and the smaller number who watch Late Review, now Newsnight Review. But Hertford College has now felt obliged to disassociate itself from Paulin's reported remarks about shooting American Jews.

Paulin says his views were "distorted" – though he has yet to say how. He also says: "I have been, and am, a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism and a consistent supporter of a Palestinian state. I do not support attacks on Israeli civilians under any circumstances. I am in favour of the current efforts to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The terrible events in the Middle East are a real source of anguish – we are all responsible for what is happening there, and we are responsible, too, for finding a just and lasting peace."

Tom Paulin, 53, was born in Leeds, where his father was a headmaster and his mother a doctor. When he was four the family moved to Belfast.

After school, he went to Hull University to read English, where he says he was "terrified" of the poet Philip Larkin, who was the librarian. Larkin, however, was the cause of the very first Paulin media outburst. On television in 1992 he accused Anthony Thwaite, editor of the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, of censoring the dead poet's racist comments.

While at Hull, Paulin met his wife Munjiet Kaur Khosa, who had grown up in Northern Ireland's Sikh community and gone to a Catholic school. The couple have two sons, aged 21 and 20.

Paulin's own poetry has often been concerned with Northern Ireland. His first collection of poems, A State of Justice, was published in 1977. Four others have followed.

Mark Bell, series producer of Newsnight Review, said recently of his outspoken panellist: "We get letters from viewers telling us they have little shrines to Tom by the telly. And we get others telling us he is the most appalling man and shouldn't be allowed on air."

Paulin likes to defend his own outbursts by placing himself in a literary tradition. "I do think culture is an argument," he says, "and that was a part of the way I was brought up. People at a social occasion in Ireland will start shouting and arguing. When the Yeats family lived in Bedford Park, they had to go round to the neighbours to say: 'You might think we are fighting, but this is the way we talk to each other.'"

Yeats had to do his arguing without the benefit of the National Lottery. Paulin has received a £75,000 grant from the lottery-funded National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, for his latest project on Second World War poetry – the first funding that Nesta has given to someone publicly criticised in court.

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