Headlines, Deadlines and the Dalai Lama: The Story of The Oxford Forum

Our president-elect Joe Stonor takes a look back at the origins of the Media Society and speaks to Zoë Flood and James Ball, two editors of The Oxford Forum - an ambitious project that sought to redefine student journalism. With features from the biggest names of the day and insights from beyond the realms of Oxford University, it’s a monument to what the tenacity of hard-working students can achieve.

Today, Zoe Flood is an award-winning filmmaker and James Ball the Global Editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

© Charisse Kenion, Unsplash Images

© Charisse Kenion, Unsplash Images

What do George Osborne, Riz Ahmed and the Dalai Lama all have in common? Despite appearances, this is not the set up to a poorly-pitched joke. Rather, it is a question with a quite straightforward answer: The Oxford Forum

Each of these illustrious figures, though disparate in their professions and ideologies, had by-lines in the magazine, a publication founded by Oxford students in 2005 that ran for several years. What is remarkable on the surface – the Dalai Lama writing for a student publication! – is only more impressive once explored further, something I was fortunate enough to do as I spoke to Zoë Flood and James Ball, two editors of The Forum.  With lessons for any student journalist in Oxford today, or indeed any journalist anywhere, the story of how these three names were united under one title by a bunch of audaciously ambitious students is well worth the telling.

Originally founded in conjunction with the Media Society, The Forum was the responsibility of Flood and soon developed a life of its own. Going into her third year at Keble, Flood, alongside old friends from The Oxford Student Rachel O’Brien and Vishesh Srivastava, founded the magazine and society after looking for a project that was “interesting, but probably not too demanding”. Though certainly interesting, The Forum was equally demanding. Not only a place of thorough and serious writing, the publication, built around what Ball describes as “broad thematic sections that might change slightly from issue to issue”, combined opinion pieces, research and photojournalism. 

The mammoth task of putting together a 64-page magazine, high-minded in tone and broad in scope, interweaving articles by students, academics and established media commentators, was made possible by what Flood describes as “a collaborative editorial team”. She recruited from contemporaries she had worked with before – “people I knew would come through for me” – providing a solid platform for the magazine’s vaulting ambition.

The Forum stands apart from mainstream student journalism, then as now, in its eagerness to look beyond Oxford life and politics. Although Flood had edited the OxStu and Ball had cut his teeth at Trinity’s college rag – affectionately described as “absolute rot” – The Forum had loftier aspirations. As the publication’s name suggests, Flood wanted to create “a place to discuss” that “bridged the gap between student journalism and academic journals”, whilst for Ball, who came to The Forum later, the magazine was attractive because of its distance from conventional student journalism. Devoid of “the massive sort of high school drama that went around most of the time”, The Forum could focus solely on big ideas and pressing issues.

He describes “this desperate ambition to have something you could do as a student journalist that wasn’t just constant naval-gazing”, where the focus is on “journalism by students instead of student journalism”. It is this sense that carries The Forum beyond the realms of any typical student publication, uproots it from its Oxford foundations and affirms its position as a publication that is worthwhile entirely in its own right, outward looking and unburdened by student politics. Students can be forgiven for becoming a little caught in the insular web that Oxford can weave, yet the reminder that there is a whole world out there in which the University is but a drop in the ocean is an important one.

This is a message that The Forum gets across both explicitly and implicitly. Across different editions of the magazine, globes, maps and foreign landscapes abound in the artwork and photography that are interspersed throughout articles, as if subliminally to lure the reader into a broadening of perspective. The scope and ambition of The Forum is clear from the first edition, published in Spring 2005: George Monbiot expounds the importance of not selling out, George Osborne takes a turn to bash the Liberal Democrats and Shami Chakrabarti warns of the nefarious threat posed by ID cards, all alongside Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum discussing life as a reporter on the front line, Melanie Philips berating the ineffectiveness of Tory opposition (before she was quite so toxic) and a profoundly arresting photo-essay on the AIDS crisis in South Africa from DPhil student James Myburgh. It is an incredible line-up, characterised by serious journalism and genuine, original insight, all without side-lining student voices.

Quite how did a small band of third years manage to pull this off? Most of the writers mentioned above make a living off the back of their ideas, so how could they be convinced to give them up for free to a student start-up?  Flood’s short answer is simple: “I think we were just super keen”. She describes the process of pulling together the first edition as akin to Bob Geldof scrambling together the Live Aid line-up, promising David Bowie that Paul McCartney was playing, and Paul McCartney the inverse, so that in the end both came along. Though a little less glamorous, it was this kind of tenacity that brought The Forum together. As Ball remembers, “you just got good at being cheeky”. 

Looking back, The Forum’s renowned contributors still impress. “We did stupidly well with writers”, Ball says. “We had a bit of the Oxford branding but also you would just kind of go all out. It was one a term and so you weren’t trying to put too many together, but we never paid anyone. You would just end up calling in every favour you know”. The names that pop up throughout any particular edition of The Forum, not only the first, are remarkable. Gasped double takes of ‘it can’t be!’ are swiftly followed by second looks that confirm, no, it really is. These waves of incredulity are limited not only to high-profile writers, but extend to the student editors, photographers and artists too.

Ball and Flood have themselves gone on to remarkable careers: Ball worked at WikiLeaks and was at the vanguard of reporting the Edward Snowden leaks, two of the biggest scoops of the century so far. Meanwhile, Flood is an award-winning documentary maker with a truly global journalistic footprint, having written for some of the biggest news organisations in the world. Other prominent figures listed among the credits include Frederic Aranda, the celebrated photographer, and Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England? and a prominent environmental campaigner.

Elsewhere, Riz Ahmed was in fact a contemporary of Flood’s at Oxford. His contribution to The Forum, featured in the Summer 2006 publication edited by Ball, catches him on the cusp of a phenomenal career in music and film. It is one of the standout pieces of the edition, painting a vivid picture of a society riven by a wave of xenophobia in the wake of 9/11. Riffing on the central theme of his irreverent song ‘Post 9/11 Blues’, banned at the time by the BBC for being too controversial, Ahmed concludes that “people aren’t viewed as people anymore, they’re viewed as a group in society”, an observation as true now as it was 15 years ago.

Ahmed’s piece sits alongside one by Andrew Adonis, and comes just after a teacher’s poignant response to one of his pupils stabbing another. This collocation of a young upstart, a minister and piece of urgent journalism encapsulates The Forum’s achievement, establishing its position as a genuine confluence of perspectives. Even the Dalai Lama is on the facing page to a lucky undergrad. The remarkable preposterousness of this juxtaposition is not lost on Flood, as she “still can’t quite believe we managed to get a piece from the Dalai Lama”, the perfect monument to the “ambition” that Ball describes.

Of course, to achieve all this took no little effort and some rather big sacrifices. Often, degrees were first to be laid upon the altar of The Forum. Flood describes “pushing the limits” as she was consumed by “doing a paper and a full thesis in the same term as setting up a magazine”. Ball tells a fantastic story of commitment above and beyond the call of duty to student journalism, as, in his finals term, he stayed on to edit The Forum in the absence of anyone sufficiently qualified. One of his economics finals coincided with press day:

“I was in full sub fusc desperately trying to put a magazine to bed. Richard Griffiths had promised to file and promised to file and promised to file, and did, about 20 minutes before deadline and before I had to be in an exam hall, by fax, handwritten.”

This is truly the stuff of student nightmares, but The Forum, of course, came first. Ball conscripted the nearest onlooker to dictate the article to him, hastily typing it up before pressing send and making it to his exam with five minutes to spare. Yet his brush with enforced rustication did not put him off journalism for good. Rather, it was the inciting incident for his enrolment at City University’s newly-established course after his mother pointed out that journalism was quite evidently what he cared about most. As Ball points out, only half-joking, “I probably owe it my career”. The intensity of journalism gripped Flood; she too has “been doing it ever since”.

This unswerving dedication and commitment to fully invest themselves in the magazine is what made it such a success. Flood reflects that “it was a good high-quality publication, because it was produced by a group of people who were passionate and hard-working and dedicated”. But it was also what made The Forum so enjoyable, since, as Flood comments, “if you’re not passionate about it then you’re probably not going to do it in the first place”. Thanks to the collective effort “by a group of people who shared similar values and interests and passions”, the group were able to pull off something that was “ambitious and pushing boundaries”.

Ball remembers the project as “probably a little bit vainglorious and a little bit doomed but it was a great thing to have tried”. There is no doubt that The Forum perhaps reached beyond its station, yet its outsized success is self-assured. The magazine is comfortable in its position as a serious, cerebral publication that did not want to play on the same level that student publications are used to. Beyond the distinguished writers and precociously professional tone, The Forum is, most importantly, a testament to the value of being cheeky, of chancing your hand at something extraordinary.