In episode one of His Dark Materials, the new BBC adaptation of the famous Philip Pullman trilogy, an excited Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) presents his revolutionary discovery of other worlds to a room full of stuffy university professors.
“There is a war raging right now between those trying to keep us in ignorance and those trying to fight for the light – for true academic freedom,” he shouts, and is quickly hushed by the Master of the University: “None of us can hear this – these are heretical discussions.”
When Northern Lights came out in 1995, it still just about made sense that the evil censoring powers-that-be, the ‘Magisterium’, referred to the Church. It was understood to be an anti-Christian story – Pullman said as much, and in the years following its publication, grand discussions ensued with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in which the Archbishop politely defended the role of religion.
Today, this struggle for free speech in universities is resonant in a very different way. More than religion (which is almost gone completely among young people), it calls to mind the newly insurgent campaign against oppressive political correctness and lack of viewpoint diversity on campuses. Members of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ and other ‘free speech advocates’ see themselves as latter-day Lord Asriels, fighting against a new ‘Magisterium’ of very secular powers.
How fitting that, the very day after the premiere of His Dark Materials, in a debate about anti-Semitism, the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby should stand up in the House of Lords in full frock and speak out against “no-platforming, intimidation and lack of free speech” in universities.
When even liberal, Remain-leaning Archbishop Welby joins the battle against these forces, we can be sure of one thing: the new ‘Magisterium’ certainly isn’t the Church.