Student journalists, it’s time to fight back

SU meddling has turned student newspapers into little more than PR rags.

Aubrey Allegretti

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Topics Free Speech

Universities are supposed to be places of learning; they train us to question, to argue and to listen. But while students are encouraged to think critically in their studies, they are often lambasted by their universities and students’ unions for employing similar scrutiny towards the institution’s activities.

Student journalists have, for many years, unearthed groundbreaking stories and exposed serious impropriety at the highest level of university power structures. As reporters, their job is to be as engaged, as disciplined and as informed in their professional capacity as they would be in their studies.

As a former editor of a student publication, I have always maintained that the role of student journalists should be to hold universities and students’ unions – the institutions that make decisions on behalf of their readers – accountable, in much the same way that national newspapers scrutinise the public spending and policy that affect their audience.

To unearth and expose corruption and malpractice, presented in the frontpage splash we all dream of, requires resilience and tenacity. Standing up to power is not meant to be easy. But the freedoms afforded to student papers, their ability to dig out a contentious story and publish it, is gradually being eroded, leaving us editors feeling like little more than puppets at the helm of a PR rag.

Most student newspapers in the UK are funded by their universities and students’ unions. And, in recent years, these institutions have been trying to stop student journalists from probing into their affairs.

The editor of the University of Plymouth’s student paper, the Knowledge, recently revealed that she was threatened with expulsion, after she revealed alleged overspending by the university and cuts of up to £260,000 to support services, including disabled facilities. Often, newspapers have formal arrangements with their universities regarding final editorial decisions. And this power is being routinely abused.

But students’ unions are often just as guilty as universities themselves. Union reps are often involved in editorial decisions and, in some cases, are the ones who will actually send a publication to print. Last month, Leicester University’s paper, the Ripple, claimed its students’ union was using the university’s media constitution to delay publication of a frontpage splash discussing apathy towards campus elections. ‘It’s pretty disappointing when the very people who are supposed to represent us as students try to hold us back and attempt to censor us in this way’, a spokeswoman for the paper told the Leicester Mercury. After the paper threatened to run a blank frontpage with the words ‘this article has been censored’, the union agreed to the publication of the original piece – in full and unedited.

I only wish that the University of Sussex Students’ Union had been so sage. When I was appointed editor of the Sussex paper, the Badger, we produced a news piece examining exactly the same problem that was then attacked by a union officer for having dared discuss what she demeaned as ‘unsubstantiated concerns’. I and my ‘band of phantom naysayers’ (thanks for that one, we put it on our t-shirts!) were heavily criticised for not having sung the praises of the election process from the rooftop of the university library.

It was one of many clashes between our paper and its proprietors. And, five months later, the union refused to let us print at all, citing a need to clarify ‘editorial oversight’, a step which subsequently saw USSU revoke our discretionary independence. Following that ‘process’, I was told by the union that, among other restrictions, I was no longer permitted to change the size of our font. It felt as though I was being manipulated to mask their covert agenda.

Some attacked the paper for daring to probe into the affairs of the union. They said that the Badger shouldn’t hold the union, a ‘democratic institution’, to the same standards of scrutiny as the university. Safe to say, these were comments from staff within the union.

Yes, universities and students’ unions foot the bill for print and office costs, but if they want to dictate what can and can’t be printed, then they should make this clear to student writers and readers. As long as unions and universities insist on championing campus media outlets as at least semi-editorially independent, they cannot expect editors happily to have story angles dictated to them or their stories spiked when there is a conflict of interest.

Fighting against this kind of censorship can feel lonely. But when I attended a conference last year, which brought together student journalists from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, I was amazed to hear about similar experiences from other editors, who were sick of having to pander to the whims of their proprietors so as to maintain a print-run. They gave me the courage to continue resisting the pressure to simply placate our proprietors. But it worries me that the future of student journalism as a whole has been put under threat by the creep of censorship.

Writing for a student paper is one of the most useful routes into a professional career in journalism. But if student editors are forbidden from fostering curiosity in aspiring reporters, or censored from revealing the results of their investigations, student journalists will never learn how to truly speak truth to power.

Aubrey Allegretti is a political journalist and former editor of the Badger.

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Topics Free Speech