Ruth Padel, the first woman to be voted as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry yesterday resigned from the post. It is an obnoxious end to a smear filled election that has damaged a poet who has spoken the truth. The favourite for the post, Derek Walcott, removed himself from the running after allegations. These allegations had nothing to do with his poety and where over two decades old. The problem is, even if the allegations may have been true, they were never proven in a court of law (the fact is it was all settled out of court). Therefore, they fall into a distinct grey area, is it truth, is it not? When Ruth Padel passed this information on, she may have been acting honourably but the information was flawed from the start. You can bark and swear and say, ‘But it’s true!’ but the law says otherwise. Regardless of what I believe, this was a dangerous line for Ruth Padel to tread, I admire her for it but at the same time I am angry. She was the first female Professor of Poetry at Oxford! Regardless of the milestone this was, it was up to the election panel to look into the pasts of all the candidates, not for the candidates to do this. When Ruth did this, it became an emotive, subjective argument, she was passing on Chinese Whispers (there may be truth somewhere in there but prove it or be open to liable). She states: “I genuinely believe that I did nothing intentional that led to Derek Walcott’s withdrawal from the election. I wish he had not pulled out. I did not engage in a smear campaign against him, but, as a result of student concern, I naively – and with hindsight unwisely – passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain.”
Where does one start with such a mistake? The law has clearly defined the past mistakes of Derek Walcott is a closed book. Yet, Ruth Padel trusted a student rather than the facts (which, yet again, are grey and not founded in a court of law). She passed this onto journalists who she deemed honourable. Ruth Padel could be forgiven for the mistake of believing the student. She cannot be forgiven for passing on what is deemed as confidential information to the public sector. This is an abuse of pastoral care. Now, before you say this was public domain information, it is not when a student talks to you privately. I think Ruth has been manipulated, and this is a shame, and that factions in Oxford have used her. She is a great poet, who has made a silly mistake.
The only mistake she has made is a breach of conduct. What happens in a seminar is private, and effectively belongs to the institution. There are procedures when a student passes anything that can be deemed as personal or of a sensitive nature. This information is dealt with by line managers, heads of departments and corroborated. Now, this mistake has meant that the student could become a public figure or worse, end up in court, and asked to evidence allegations. Yet again, I have to direct you to the out of court settlement that Walcott’s lawyers won, these would have had certain terms attached.
I think Ms Padel in a moment of weakness thought she was speaking the truth but the truth can only be told by Walcott or the alledged victims. Heresay is not fact. Heresay is not truth. But more importantly it was up to the election committee to take control of what was becoming a shambles and to make sure that, like a proper election, there should have been a perda period.
Unfortunately, the people who first started the smear campaign made the wrong decision for the world of poetry. They have sent the message out to young poets that it is okay to cut corners, to smear your colleagues, comrades and friends with information that is not the proven truth.
That is a very silly mistake to end a shambles of an election.
More information is leaked from the Evening Standard on the 26/05/2009 by Robert Mendick and Peter Dominiczak: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23698409-details/Revealed:%20Ruth%20Padel%20s%20email%20that%20smeared%20her%20Nobel%20rival/article.do?expand=true#StartComments