Given the marketisation of higher education and the increasingly corporate nature of universities it is perhaps inevitable that some student journalists will find themselves under pressure not to portray their university in an unflattering light. It is also predictable that universities will attempt to censor stories deemed to be incompatible with the rosy images they wish to cultivate. Student media need to be vigilant over protecting their journalism from unwarranted interference.
Durham pressures Palatinate
Durham University’s vice-chancellor pressured student journalists not to publish stories critical of the University. This is according to claims reported by the Times Higher Education in its article, Durham v-c wanted student paper ‘to be an advertisement’. The Times mentions four former editors of the Durham student newspaper Palatinate, two of whom had apparently feared being expelled by the University.
Durham’s demands over one Palatinate article apparently led to the paper agreeing ‘to run an apology for the article and a positive comment piece’ by a member of staff after ‘the situation’ was defused by an official of Durham Students’ Union.
The pressures placed on Palatinate’s editors are said to include: a demand to resign as editor, a threat of disciplinary measures for causing reputational damage to the University, dressing-downs by senior members of staff when they ‘disagreed with the editorial slant taken by the newspaper’, and being ‘chastised’ for not running more ‘positive’ stories.
Palatinate’s own story, “Culture of fear”: claims VC tried to control student media, includes an ‘exclusive interview’ with a former editor who recounts the University’s reaction to a comment piece on the value of Durham University degrees. This reaction is said to include a senior member of staff e-mailing the comment’s author ‘demanding an immediate apology’. Palatinate subsequently ‘had to remove the piece from online and print an apology in the next edition’.
Other takes on the matter come from the Durham Tab, with Higgins takes ‘iron-fist’ approach to Palatinate to protect ‘Durham Brand’, and the online Durham magazine The Bubble, under Palatinate Editors Pressured by University.
Although the University has stated its commitment to ‘freedom of expression under the law’ and said that it has ‘never disciplined a student for publishing controversial material in good faith’ it does not appear to have disputed the substance of the reported claims.
The Saint upsets St Andrews
The University of St Andrews student newspaper, The Saint, has clashed with St Andrews over a story and associated editorial on mental health. Under the headline, Student mistakenly expelled due to University mental health policy, the Saint conveys student criticism of the University’s mental health services and tells of how an anonymised student with mental health problems was ‘expelled’ and later reinstated on ‘appeal’.
In a response to the Saint’s publications the University writes of ‘two seriously misleading and unbalanced items’ and ‘the large number of misleading and inaccurate statements’. It says that the ‘headline and central claim’ of the Saint’s article ‘is utterly false’ and that no student was expelled, ‘far less mistakenly expelled’ due to the University’s mental health policy.
It complains that rather than removing the article and editorial from its website and issuing an apology it appears that the Saint has tampered with the original wording under the guise of updates and clarifications, with both pieces remaining ‘thoroughly misleading, factually incorrect and unbalanced’.
St Andrews is emphatic that no student was expelled and yet the Saint has neither removed its story nor apologised. Is there a way to reconcile these contrasting positions?
The Saint says that the student ‘was later expelled from the University because he had not registered or confirmed how long he would like to remain on leave’ and quotes the student as referring to ‘a serious situation like termination of studies’. Is part of the difference between the two positions essentially one of terminology? Could it be that St Andrews does not expel students but rather terminates their studies?
Central Lancashire removes Pluto
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) removed copies of the student newspaper Pluto from distribution points in order to prevent the paper being seen by prospective students attending an open day. Pluto’s lead story, Outrageous, with its standfirst of ‘As UCLan writes off £3.2M Thai campus, 75 lecturers lose their jobs here in Preston’, reflected poorly on the University.
The Huffington Post pursued the story in UCLan removes all student newspapers criticising job cuts in time for open day. The University says it removed the paper ‘for the duration of the event because the front page headline misrepresented the current situation at the university’.
Sheffield bans Forge Press
The University of Sheffield banned an edition of the student newspaper Forge Press over its revelation of commercial plans which involve employing new staff on reduced wages.
‘The story the University doesn’t want you to read’ declared Forge Press in a social media introduction to its story, ‘Uni of the Year’ exploits loophole to slash workers’ pay. The previous evening Sheffield had banned distribution of the paper to university-owned residences. It rescinded the ban later the same day.
HoldtheFrontPage reports a representative of the University’s Accommodation and Commercial Services as saying, ‘We believe our new students should not be faced with misinformed and misrepresented stories about our university upon first arriving in their new home’. The Star reports a university spokeswoman as later saying that the ban had been ‘a mistake’.
News of Sheffield’s ban was picked up by student media. Palatinate, covering the story under the title Student paper banned from university residences, refers to ‘an attempt to supress a story’ and a ‘media storm’. The Epinal, an online publication for Loughborough University students, produced an editorial supporting Forge Press. The Epinal believes the Forge Press exposé to be a ‘great story’ which is ‘in the public interest’. Its Editor-in-Chief says that the scoop ‘exemplifies the importance of independent student journalism’. The ‘justification in printing it’ is ‘not in question’.
Student solidarity and legitimate interests
At least two student newspapers, Palatinate and The Epinal, covered Sheffield University’s distribution ban on Forge Press. The Epinal produced an editorial supportive of Forge Press on the day the news broke. Palatinate’s reaction came later in the form of a story reporting basic facts and comment from each party. Both of these responses can be seen as examples of student solidarity.
In rushing out an editorial the Epinal was declaring that the story was newsworthy. In explicitly expressing its support for Forge Press, by saying that publication of the story was justified and in the public interest, it was making a gesture of support.
Palatinate may have been relatively late to the scene and neutral on the matter, but the mere existence of its story serves to acknowledge that censorship of student journalism is of interest to students. In that institutions do not welcome public criticism Palatinate’s story can be seen as a warning that acts of censorship by universities are likely to be reported in student media.
To what extent, if any, the Epinal and social media were factors in Sheffield’s rapid backtrack is unknown. Nevertheless, student media has a potentially vital role to play in any area which is of legitimate interest to students.
Student interest in Sheffield’s commercial plans is justified because the pay of some new student workers will now be determined by a subsidiary company of the University.
A more obvious area of interest for students is their limited rights. A simple example of the lack of a necessary right is that students expect to be treated fairly by universities but that is not always the case and they have no contractual right to fair treatment.
Role of students’ unions
Some of the pressure exerted on Durham’s Palatinate was apparently transmitted by union officials. Where a student publication is a part of the students’ union then it is not inappropriate for the university to express any concerns via the student-elected officials who represent the university’s students.
A potential difficulty is that union officials may perceive themselves as having a role of protecting the university and its image. There is perhaps a danger of student media becoming self-censoring, with any push for censorship coming from the students’ own representatives.
While it may be natural to have some sense of affection or loyalty towards one’s own university this may be no more sensibly founded than loyalty to a particular supermarket or bank.
Student media independence
Student journalism may be subject not only to censorship pressures but also to financial pressures, as exemplified by Leeds Student (LS): Funding crisis stops LS printing.
LS told its readers that it would no longer be able to print because of a lack of funding. Members of the society were ‘informed that the target set by LUU (Leeds University Union) to cover printing costs had fallen short’. It should therefore ‘cease printing’. LS says that it is ‘partially funded by LUU and partially by advertising, also controlled by the Union’. A campaign petition, Save Leeds Student Newspaper, has attracted over 1000 signatures.
Being independent of the university and the students’ union may offer benefits.
The Epinal explains why it was founded. Despite a degree of success with the union paper, Label, in ‘publishing news in the student interest’ ‘some news and comment that shone a negative light on the Students’ Union was censored’. Although there were hints of granting editorial independence to the paper ‘the threat of funding withdrawal would always hang over contentious editorial decisions’. The remedy to these complications was the creation of The Epinal.
The Student Publication Association (SPA)
The newly-formed Student Publication Association (SPA) has the purpose of sharing training and best practice, and recognising student success. The Scottish student newspaper The Journal describes its launch at a national conference: Student publication support network finally rolled out. The Galleon celebrates the success of some of the SPA’s first award winners: Portsmouth recognised at first ever conference for student journalists.
In the context of the pressures exerted on student editors the aims of the SPA may appear somewhat limited. However, its current home webpage says that, as a new association, it wants to know what student publications want from the SPA. It invites feedback through the completion of a survey form.
The extent to which the SPA represents publications rather than the student journalists who contribute to those publications is not clear.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) includes the protection and promotion of media freedom, professionalism and ethical standards among its aims.
Credibility of university complaints
Universities may complain that a story is flawed but such complaints may not always be justified. It is easy to claim such as inaccuracy or misrepresentation but, other than for such as an obvious slip-up or the need to maintain personal confidentiality, one can reasonably expect the university to support its complaint with evidence.
Where a university makes unsupported claims then it lays itself open to the suspicion that the real issue, for them, is more one of the university’s reputation and less one of having a grievance which deserves to be addressed.
Even where a story is partially inaccurate or misrepresentative it is perhaps the reality that its deficiencies will only be sufficiently important to warrant suppression in extremely rare circumstances. Grumbles over a minor point which is relatively remote from the basic tenet or thrust of a story do not justify censorship.
In the event that a university does provide evidence of relevant and material flaws in a story then one can expect the editor to make corrections, apologise or allow a right of reply, as appropriate and according to the circumstances. Student editors may not be duty bound by the Editors’ Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission but it might be unfair and unreasonable of them to defy it.
Given the promotional power of universities, and so their ability to shape student and public perceptions, it is close to absurd that they should even consider pressing for censorship or actually enforcing it themselves.
Student journalists do not set out to make mischief. They act in good faith and ultimately their own credibility and potentially their career prospects are on the line.
The integrity of student journalism is under threat from universities.
Student newspapers have been subject to distribution restrictions and journalists have been put under undue pressure to change or withdraw stories.
Whatever the merits of legitimate expressions of concern or complaint from universities, the manner in which some of them have been conveyed has left student journalists feeling intimidated and reluctant to speak out.
By its very nature it is perhaps impossible to know the extent of university intimidation of student journalists. One must fear that it is not rare. The extent to which stories have been compromised or simply not published is unknown.
There is a risk that student journalists will be deterred from forthright journalism. There is a risk that journalists will perceive a need to exercise self-censorship.
A support system for student journalists and a process for holding offending universities to account are desirable.