How will Leveson impact student journalism?

A ridiculous amount of ink has been wasted on all the ramifications of the Leveson deal this week - but no one has considered how it will affect the student press. Two student journos on either side of the fence examine the issues

Alex and Freddie are both third-year undergraduates at the University of York. Since their freshers’ week, they have regularly contributed to two of the campus’ extensive range of media outlets.

However, there is one crucial difference between the two: Freddie’s York Vision is signed to the media charter with York University Students Union. He has to face potential issues of restriction with each issue. Alex’s The Yorker is an independent news outlet, and faces no interference from the student union. Having different experiences of regulation, how do they feel Leveson relates to student papers?

Alex argues Leveson is a negative, a double to SU restrictions; Freddie believes that Leveson isn’t something to be worried about as student papers continue to thrive regardless of the unions.

Alex Jackson: More restriction? I never wanted to write about Hugh Grant anyway!

At a City University debate this month, Neil Wallis, a former News of the World executive editor warned: "If there are any student journalists here: it’s your freedom and once it goes you won’t get it back." This advice strikes close to home for many students, as Leveson replicates an issue long-standing at university.

I joined The Yorker at university because the idea of the independent paper appealed to me over union-approved media. Our independence has stood firm since we launched; unlike the other major student papers on campus, we don't sign the YUSU charter and are not moderated. If campus papers adhere to union policies, then they are often subject to restrictions that leave many students without sufficient space for investigative journalism. Instead, papers become a mouthpiece of the authority figures as the university officials steer the direction of print.

You only need to look at recent censorship of student publications to see that Leveson is likely to compromise the young journalist position further. At Sheffield, The Forge Press was banned from distribution in halls after they broke a story concerning the exploitation of a pay loophole by the university. Elsewhere, in Leeds, the NUS attempted to prevent the publishing of an interview with infamous BNP leader, Nick Griffin.

The most prolific example was probably in the case of Edinburgh University, whose student union served an interim interdict on the The Student paper after a story that could have potentially harmed their reputation was slated for front page. Instead, the students decided to leave the front page with the single word ‘Censored’, but it's still wrong that an article of such gravity should be restricted from student access, especially if rumours will circulate due to the injunction order. The truth and student journalist integrity would be better.

On Question Time last year, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins warned the audience that: “Every single measure introduced by parliament to restrict your freedom always goes further, it never goes backwards.”

It seems that some student papers could essentially be double-restricted by the proposals, government adding to union restrictions. There is a sense of trepidation: just where should regulation end and student independence start?

At the very climax of years of hard work fine-tuning the ability to report a ground-breaking story, students’ first medium of expression is set to be stifled. How should upcoming reporters explore their journalistic potential if they cannot follow their leads and initiatives?
 

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, participated in a candid interview about Leveson on the BBC this week: “People are saying there’s a certain amount if independence in there? Is there?” he questioned. “Independence or not independence? It tends to be a quality that’s either one or the other.”

This has been the issue for students for decades. The best stories came from publishing news the unions didn’t want in print, so undoubtedly the trouble is learning to compromise union policies with student rights. If Leveson meddles in a manner that the unions have advocated thus far, independence is really something under threat, and students may never know true journalistic freedom.

Freddie Nathan: Leveson ain't no thang

Campus media should not be underestimated. Out of the 150 universities in the UK, the vast majority have at least one publication. They are disseminated through campus, reaching anywhere up to 40,000 people (in the case of The Mancunion of The University of Manchester). That is not to mention online coverage, from which my student paper got about 100,000 unique hits a month last year.

I became involved with York Vision in my first term at York, along the way holding the positions of sport editor, online editor and deputy editor. Vision is the most awarded student paper in the UK – however, we are also not an independent force, allowed to write whatever we want. We are subject to libel and defamation laws in the same way as the national press. It is simply not the case that we can write anything and expect to get away with it – we are not immune.

Yet that is by no means the biggest obstacle we face. We are a ratified student society, receiving grants and funding from the students’ union and the main University body. As a result, we fall under their code of conduct.

In York, the campus media outlets signed a media charter, outlining a formal relationship between YUSU and the Student Media outlets it supports at York. This does not stop reporting the news we want to report – however, we know that intervention will often occur if a story does not satisfy the agenda of the union.

On certain matters, the reputation of the institution is paramount and it is not even worth an argument. Cardiff’s Gair Rhydd for example, re-published the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed back in 2006 - utter stupidity by the writers involved led to an international political and diplomatic matter.

Many believe, however, that censorship is fundamentally wrong. I can't argue with Alex's point about the censorship controversy in Edinburgh.

However, there are obvious pitfalls with biting the hand that feeds you. In the case of student media dependent on higher powers, it is having funding withdrawn, or even being shut down. Yet stories that students have spent hours of their voluntary time and effort compiling are all too often discarded because the union has gone to great lengths to gag them.

Similar instances have occurred in Sheffield, Loughborough and Leeds. In eventuality, the 'CENSORED' headline had the intended effect of the original scandal, if not more. Causing a stir created gossip and awareness of the scandal without revealing the explicit details.

Despite the restrictions, stories are still being broken; people within the world of higher education are still being brought to account. It will be a sad state of affairs if the day comes when the journalists of tomorrow stop taking chances and cease to break the news that may not be of interest to the nation, but can affect the lives of the Camerons and Levesons of tomorrow.

Alex and Freddie are both on Twitter. Follow them here and here.

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