Riding the storm of student protests: Jon Snow in Insight magazine

This article is from the Autumn 2005 issue of Insight, the University of Liverpool Alumni magazine:

It was the 1960s. Across Europe and the USA, amid hippies, flower power, sexual permissiveness, pop music and avant garde art, a storm was brewing. Students were protesting, and the University of Liverpool was no exception – except its revolt came a little later than the rest.

Christopher Graham, former Guild President, now Director General of the Advertising Standards Authority, was there when the action reached its peak with a sit-in at Senate House in March 1970.

Around 300 students took over the building, raising a red flag on its roof. “What struck me at the time was that Liverpool didn’t have a sit-in until years after everybody else,” he recalled. “That tells you a lot – the University of Liverpool was very much dominated by medics and engineers who were not exactly radical.”

One of the people identified – and later punished – as being a ringleader was Jon Snow, now famed as the face of Channel Four News. Chris added: “I wasn’t part of the sit-in. I was quite politically active but I didn’t think it was a good idea. However, I think I must have gone in and visited them because there is a photograph (see above) with Jon Snow addressing the students and there is someone listening who looks just like me.”

The students had a list of concerns, including allegations about the University having investments in South Africa and secret files being held about the political views of students and staff – and Christopher had been involved in adding another allegation to the list of demands. He said: “One of the issues students were concerned about was chemical and biological warfare. I was tipped off by someone at CND that one of the departments had a contract with Porton Down [the Wiltshire base used to develop British chemical warfare].

“I was sent for by the Vice-Chancellor. He knew I was quite voluble about chemical and biological warfare. We had a strange conversation where he asked why I was so interested in the Department of Medicine. Then he said:

‘You should be looking at the Department of Physics. They have Ministry of Defence contracts for research on Polaris [nuclear missiles]’.

Christopher, a Londoner who graduated in history in 1973, spent four years in Liverpool, one of them on sabbatical as President from 1971 to 1972 when he had his own share of excitement. There were problems with student housing and the undergraduates wanted to highlight the building of unnecessary office blocks.

“We took over Concourse House, an office block which was block part of Lime Street Station, which I think is still empty. We walked in and the janitor said: ‘Do yous want something?’

“We were extremely incompetent, we didn’t have enough people to occupy the block and we kept losing floors. We would get bored and go to other floors – but then the doors were locked behind us. We started off occupying 14 floors and ended up with one!”

So does he think today’s students are a calmer bunch? “People have to be a lot more focused and get on with it,” Christopher said. “When I graduated I had five job offers, there was no such thing as graduate unemployment. Now students are having to consider their finances more than we did and don’t muck about as much as we did.

“We were a pretty serious lot. We believed in causes. I don’t think I ever would advocate being the way we were.”

Christopher is passionate about the time he spent on Merseyside. “Liverpool was a shock to the system – but a very good shock,” he said, “I was a Southern kid who had been away at boarding school.

“I completely loved the place, but it wasn’t so hip and happening as it is now. There was a post-Beatles hangover. They were having a very bad time with the economy. My impression now is that it is very prosperous – there is a real buzz about the place.”

And he was keen to give something back to the city during his time here. “One of the reasons coming to Liverpool appealed to me was because I was a keen young Liberal. Liverpool was where it was all happening, when it wasn’t really happening anywhere else. “I was elected to the city council in December 1971 when I was 21 and for about five minutes I was Britain’s youngest city councillor. I was very proud of one campaign to stop the Albert Dock falling into the sea. I was the one voice on the council which thought it should be preserved and it was very gratifying to see that come right a long, long time afterwards.”

Christopher added: “When I graduated I went to work for the BBC as a news trainee and ended up as Secretary. That’s the great ball-bearing of the constitution between the governors and the Director General. Then, when there was a change of guard, I went off to the Advertising Standards Authority.

“I’m very happy here. We’ve expanded and taken responsibility for television and radio advertising. We are in a two- year probationary period with Ofcom and I have got to see that through.”

But he hopes he will eventually carve a career as a factual author, specialising in history books.

He added: “That’s where my Liverpool training will come in.”

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1 thought on “Riding the storm of student protests: Jon Snow in Insight magazine”

  1. “Miles after the rest” is over-statement. An occupation was a political tactic that needed good cause and mobilisation. Chris makes it sound like a fashion statement. It’s certainly true that, by 1970, the heady days of 1968 at Nanterre & the Sorbonne had begun to fade across the campuses. But not other forms of protest, some more violent.

    But that’s what you get with Young Liberals – lack of political depth & ahistoricism

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