It’s a rare occurrence when students get worked up enough to protest anything en masse, and it’s even rarer when they resort to full-on industrial action. So it was clear that something had gone very wrong in Cardiff on Sunday 16 November when the entire student press corps went on strike.
The group of media – which included the weekly newspaper, the magazine and the radio and television stations – were revolting against proposed changes to their management within the students’ union, as like most universities, most of Cardiff’s student media is affiliated with the union unlike here in St Andrews. Details aside, they argued the changes would be disruptive, undemocratic and a “direct threat” to their future.
It worked. After three days, nearly 800 signatures on a petition and with the support of the sabbatical officers, the union’s board voted to back the student media and to overturn the proposals. Everyone cheered, and the press went back to work.
I bring this up because the affair highlights something that sadly looks set to become almost as unusual as the strike action: a students’ union wholeheartedly supporting its student media. As a committee member at the Student Publication Association – which sticks up for student papers around the country – it seems as though hardly a week goes by without hearing about another incident of censorship or intimidation.
The threats vary and sometimes they are relatively subtle: inexplicable delays in approving a newspaper’s content (as seen recently at Leicester) or demands for greater notice before articles are published (Birmingham). But sometimes they are much more overt: Katie French, the former editor of The Knowledge in Plymouth, revealed last month that she had feared expulsion after she attempted to expose university cuts to support services. In September, Amelia Hamer was abruptly sacked as editor of The Oxford Student after the students’ union “lost confidence” in her.
Tensions are to be expected, of course, when student journalists insist on biting the hand that feeds them but it’s amazing how quickly cast-iron guarantees of editorial independence can dissolve. Universities and students’ unions are only too happy to fund docile publications that regurgitate press releases and look appealing in prospectuses; rarely do they have the principles to support a truly independent media.
[pullquote]It’s amazing how quickly cast-iron guarantees of editorial independence can dissolve[/pullquote]
This is a real shame, not just because good student newspapers provide the ideal training ground for aspiring journalists, or because these institutions should be committed to freedom of speech, but because the student press can and does play a genuinely important role in reporting stories that ‘real’ media outlets would miss.
In the last few weeks alone, Roar News has revealed that staff at King’s College London are teaching strategy to Qatari military officers as part of a £26 million contract. Forge Press discovered that Sheffield University is exploiting an employment loophole, leaving student employees £700 out of pocket. York Vision exposed a private Twitter account used by members of the university hockey team to post messages about how they enjoyed “stabbing black people”. Gair Rhydd, at Cardiff, beat the national press to report on how new international students will be charged to use the NHS.
Just last week The Student in Edinburgh sparked university and union investigations – as well as stories in at least 15 national and international media outlets – when it published details of conversations between members of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the controversial fraternity that reportedly plans to establish a branch in St Andrews. The members threatened to rape other students, proposed a “raping holiday” to Montenegro, and made various other racist and transphobic comments.
I’ll always be the first person to admit that the student press isn’t perfect. Mistakes, poor writing and errors of judgement abound. But consider trying to run a newspaper where the staff are inexperienced, self-taught volunteers who are also studying full-time for degrees; where you have to raise all your own money to cover printing and other costs; and where the students’ union is as likely to censor you as support you, (or, if you’re independent like The Saint, where you have no support network at all).
That’s the reality of student media, and that’s why I was so heartened to see the Cardiff students’ union support its striking journalists when it could easily have run roughshod over them. Stories like the ones I listed above are important; they deserve to be told. But none would have come to light without the student press fighting to overcome some pretty long odds and publish them.
Week in, week out, student journalists are threatened. Whether it be with censorship, with the sack, even with expulsion for voluntarily giving their time to a job of real importance. For that, they deserve better than they get.