THE principal of South College in Durham is facing calls for his resignation after he invited the noted controversialist Rod Liddle to give an after-dinner speech last week to students at their Christmas meal.

Liddle was a strange choice. Described by one academic as a “wind up merchant”, Liddle has form on pushing the boundaries. Just two of his many past misdemeanours would include having to apologise for blogging about “black savages” and complaining in another online post that “it's outrageous that you can't smoke in Auschwitz. I had to sneak round the back of the gas chambers for a crafty snout”.

Liddle has often defended his controversial comments by claiming that they are intended to be humorous. As we all now know, racism cannot be defended by dressing it up as banter, but even if that defence is taken at face value, the decision to invite a modern day Bernard Manning as your after-dinner speaker at Christmas might be considered a questionable, if not utterly bizarre, decision. True to form on Friday, Liddle’s speech led to some of those present complaining that his remarks, unsurprisingly, included racist and transphobic comments.

The invitation makes more sense when learning that the host of the dinner, Tim Luckhurst – the Principal of South College and Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University – has been close friends with Liddle for decades since both men worked for the Labour Party and the BBC.

Prof Luckhurst has been a doughty public defender of Liddle for over a decade describing him as “an iconoclast” who has been “trashed a screechingly intolerant campaign of hostility directed against him by metropolitan critics”.

At the dinner last week, Prof Luckhurst continued his defence of Liddle publicly branding students as “pathetic” for walking out of the dinner in response to Liddle’s comments. Another of the professor’s guests, his wife Dorothy, later took to social media to describe the students as “a bunch of inadequates”.

Thus far the response to the whole affair has included an apology from the college principal for his response to the students in his care, the announcement of an investigation by the university and a call from the Student Union for him to resign.

But a more interesting response has come from those student groups who, whilst criticising Luckhurst for inviting Liddle, have sought to chart a way forward beyond the largely sterile cancel culture versus free speech debate.

Those groups have asked Luckhurst to apologise, suggested how future speakers for Christmas meals could be chosen and have offered the principal an opportunity to express his support and solidarity with those groups of students who believed their colour and sexuality to be attacked by Liddle.

This gracious and measured response has so far attracted the support of more than 1,500 other students in barely two days. It is an irony that the most mature and considered response to the whole affair has come from groups which Liddle would likely be the first to ridicule. And yet it is those groups, led by the Durham Intersectional Feminism Society, who have demonstrated the grace and reason so lacking in Liddle’s speech and in the decision by his friend to invite him in the first place.