Ben Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two young women (Francesco Guidicini)
This originally appeared in News Review, The Sunday Times
Ben Sullivan looks tired and jittery as he lets me into the poky garden of the Oxford Union. The past few weeks have been tumultuous, he says. In May he was arrested in a dawn raid on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two young women. That became an international scandal when he refused to resign as president of the union, the university’s 200-year-old debating society and a truculent sandpit for toddler prime ministers.
Things got nasty, quickly. Speakers booked at the union, including the secretary-general of Interpol, a Nobel peace prize winner, a Dragons’ Den star and the UK director of Human Rights Watch, cancelled upcoming appearances or demanded that he resign. But some disagreed with the boycott, including the philosopher AC Grayling, several national newspaper columnists and the senior independent MP Nigel Evans.
The publication of his name and picture — decked out in his presidential white tie — throughout the world’s media inflamed a growing debate on whether defendants in sex cases should share the right to anonymity that their accusers enjoy. Sullivan was also accused of previously misusing union funds to “gag” news outlets, and other officers at the society staged vigils and walkouts in protest against him.
The spite of the battle is inversely proportional to the size of the battlefield. On Wednesday, six weeks after his arrest, the police told the 21-year-old they would not be charging him.
“It’s been a difficult time for me and my family,” he says at an outdoor table, sipping mineral water. A kitchen extractor honks stale chip-oil air around the red bricks and Gothic windows. Sullivan speaks quickly but deliberately, fiddling with his BlackBerry as his lawyer, parents, union colleagues and print journalists all scramble to talk to him. There is something of the young Tony Blair about Sullivan in the high-pitched, fluent voice, the slightly delicate manner, the shifty confidence.
His arrest was “not a complete surprise”, he says, “although I was confident it would eventually go my way”. By the time he left the police station, a few hours after his arrest, his story was blaring from the website of a leading tabloid. How did it get there? “I don’t know,” he says, although I suspect he does.
Journalists were parked outside his family home in London and stayed there for days; Sullivan waited almost a week before venturing outside.
He is a type to whom many people seem to have taken an instant, second-hand dislike. After St Paul’s School, the banker’s son went to Christ Church, one of Oxford’s grander colleges, where he joined a group calling itself the Banter Squadron and, far more embarrassingly, became president of the union.
The Banter Squadron memorably glosses itself as an “elite Christ Church drinking society founded in 1304 by a group of libertines with exceptional chat”.
“That was clearly a joke,” says Sullivan. “Christ Church wasn’t even founded until 200 years after that. In the first year, one of our friends started calling our group the Banter Squadron. It’s not some laddish drinking society — one of us doesn’t drink at all — and we don’t have a uniform of any sort.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the name did not help: it confirmed prejudices some people hold about privileged young men, and allowed him to be painted as a boorish oaf.
Sarah Pine, vice-president for women at the Oxford University Student Union — different from the Oxford Union — co-wrote an open letter, urging speakers to boycott the union unless Sullivan stood down. (He says he would have resigned if police had charged him.) Prominent figures, including the left-wing journalist Laurie Penny and the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, signed the letter, and it was widely published, but is now strangely hard to find. Websites including those of the New Statesman and Cherwell, an Oxford University student paper, have pulled it.
“A couple of weeks ago, I asked Sarah Pine for a full copy with a list of the people who had signed. She told me they had taken it down,” he says.
Jennifer Perry, an expert in cyberstalking, refused to join the boycott, saying the campaign against Sullivan was “ill-conceived” and “absolute folly . . . Muddying the waters as much as they did made the whole process much more difficult . . . I refused to cave into their intimidation.”
Sullivan admits he used union funds to “gag” The Tab, an online student paper, when it sought to publish a story claiming he had tried to stop a new anti-harassment policy becoming part of the union’s rules. The union is supposed to be a place where free speech means something, I say. How could it possibly have been right to use members’ money to silence a story? “Yes,” he says. “But we also have strict rules in the chamber about people making libellous and defamatory comments. I’d actually helped to write that anti-harassment policy.”
Is lad culture a problem at university? “It is.” So what’s the worst example you’ve seen? Sullivan pauses; he is being careful. “You do see it around. For example, one of my good friends in the union told me about a group of third-year boys who are always taking groups of first-year girls out, forcing them to drink and sconcing them [an arcane Oxford drinking challenge] to say what their favourite sexual position is. That needs to be divorced from sexual violence: just because someone sconces a girl in that way doesn’t make him a rapist. But I do think that this culture is a problem, and I worry it may change the way some people view relationships, view women, view sex.”
Universities — and certainly their debating societies — are supposed to be places where young people can play at being grown-ups and, by and large, make mistakes out of sight. But now Google will inform any future employer, acquaintance, colleague or girlfriend of Sullivan’s that he was once arrested for rape and attempted rape. That he was never charged might as well be small print.
I ask him how he can hope to live it down. “It will be very difficult,” he says. “Hopefully, people will accept that no charges have been brought against me and the investigation is finished, and I’ll be able to move on. But these were poisonous accusations and there will be people out there who will think I’m guilty for ever.”
Do you deserve an apology from the people behind the boycott? “I think this could have been gone about in such a way that I didn’t deserve one, but I do feel like the personal and the general were confused. For example, last Friday, I was in the loo, in a cubicle, and two of the organisers of the campaign against me came in. I heard them greet each other as ‘comrade’, and then they said to one another at the urinal, ‘Don’t you wish there was a picture of Ben Sullivan at the bottom of this?’”
Overall, says Sullivan, the union has a “very unhealthy culture. What people are willing to do to get to the top is concerning.”
The Oxford term finished yesterday, and with it Sullivan’s presidency. Having taken a year out to be president, he will return to Christ Church in January to finish his history and politics degree. And then? “I don’t know. Your perspective changes after something like this. I wanted to be a management consultant before, but the union puts you off things — politics being one of them. I’d had enough of climbing greasy poles even before all this. The thing is, it was incredibly difficult to see myself tossed around for a cause I actually have a lot of sympathy for. I didn’t feel it was appropriate — or right.”
Original article at The Sunday Times