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The Department for Education has said it is up to universities as “independent and autonomous” organisations to “investigate and consider” allegations of academics spreading pro-Putin propaganda on social media.
Academic figures affiliated with leading education institutions including the University of Edinburgh, who have been accused of sharing content associated with pro-Putin views on social media, have been described as “useful idiots” for the Kremlin by the Education Select Committee chair, Robert Halfon.
Last week Tim Hayward, a professor of environmental political theory at Edinburgh University, retweeted a post from the Russian representative to the United Nations describing a rocket attack on a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “fake news”.
Above the post which Hayward ‘quote tweeted’, he wrote: “As long as we’re still able to hear two sides of the story we should continue striving to do so.”
Hayward said that he “was not intending to endorse it” when quoting the tweet. “Particularly its categorical assertion of ‘fake news’ which I don’t endorse,” he added.
Three people, including a child, were killed when Russian bombs fell on the maternity hospital last Wednesday during a proposed 12-hour ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate. A pregnant woman and her baby who were injured in the attack have also since died. Video footage of the “colossal damage” to the hospital described by the city council has been verified by multiple news agencies, including the BBC.
Hayward told PoliticsHome that he is “clear as anyone that Putin was wrong to invade Ukraine” and his “tweets reflect a concern that there is a distinct danger of escalation when propaganda and disinformation encourage either over-confidence or exaggerated fears on either side”.
Hayward said he believed that the West had been “misled into supporting some disastrous foreign policy these past twenty years,” and that “we should be trying to apply the lessons learned and not pretend that everything we the public hear on ‘our’ side is necessarily the unvarnished truth”.
The professor also stressed that his tweets are written in a “personal capacity” rather than as a representative of Edinburgh university.
Education Secretary says Govt will “crackdown hard” on universities allowing their academics to push Kremlin propaganda.
— Theo Usherwood (@theousherwood) March 14, 2022
A DfE spokesperson told PoliticsHome claims of academics believed to be spreading Kremlin propaganda are “deeply disturbing”.
“Universities, as independent and autonomous organisations, should decide whether to investigate, however these views are clearly deeply offensive and completely lacking in academic integrity,” they said.
But education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that universities minister Michelle Donelan is “already on the case” when quizzed by Halfon on what government will do to “stop” the academics sharing such information on social media.
“Putin and his cronies are a malign influence on anyone in this country buying their false narrative, and I have to repeat it is a false and dangerous narrative, and we will crack down on it hard,” Zahawi told an education select committee hearing on Monday.
Halfon told PoliticsHome that the DfE should “absolutely” go further than recommending universities launch investigations.
Currently, the matter is for universities to investigate and consider while “balancing their legal duties which include ensuring freedom of speech and academic freedom”, a DfE spokesperson told PoliticsHome. They strongly condemned the content of Hayward’s retweet.
A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: “The University of Edinburgh joins colleagues in the sector in condemning the invasion of Ukraine and we fully endorse the Universities UK statement on this issue.”
Hayward has previously been accused of spreading pro-Assad content, but has denied claims he is pro-Assad.
The academic is a founding member of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media” (WGSPM), which has hosted content suggesting that the White Helmet civilian volunteer force in Syria fabricate video evidence of attacks in Syria.
Syrian students and academics have complained about being “put off” by Hayward’s apparent views on the Assad regime. Hayward told PoliticsHome he would “never comment on students or internal university affairs”.
The University of Edinburgh did not respond to requests from PoliticsHome when asked if it has investigated whether disinformation has been taught to students in Hayward’s classes.
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