NUS votes to help support student newspapers amid ongoing campus censorship debate

Passing of the motion will allow for 'true and accurate' coverage during student officer elections

Matt Monk
Thursday 21 April 2016 11:07 BST
Hundreds of students' union reps, pictured, have been debating and voting on NUS motions since Monday
Hundreds of students' union reps, pictured, have been debating and voting on NUS motions since Monday (NUS)

The National Union of Students (NUS) has voted to help support media coverage amid the ongoing debate into on-campus censorship.

Student media groups across the UK have shown concern over their respective students’ unions (SU) “controlling” content pre-publication, particularly during election periods.

Submitted by the University of Bath, the motion stated how democracy and collective empowerment are “foundational values” of the student movement, and said SUs should “lead the way” in securing these principles.

The motion had failed to be resolved on the first day of the NUS National Conference in Brighton. However, after protesters campaigned on social media - using #Motion314 - it, again, caught the attention of the delegates and passed on Tuesday.

Media officer with the University of Bath SU, Tommy Parker, spearheaded the motion, and told the Independent he brought it forward so student media can be given the chance to provide “accurate and more comprehensive” coverage during officer elections.

Many top universities across the UK are known to have decades-old and well-known publications which are meant to exist to hold their university and SUs to account. However, a lack of freedom and support has meant many have been unable to do so.

Jem Collins, chair of the Student Publication Association (SPA) - the national body that represents student newspapers and journalists across the UK - highlighted the importance of the motion.

Speaking to the Independent, she said: “The fact is that the majority of student publications in the UK are supported by their SUs and, while some have a really great relationship with their union, others do not.”

She described how the SPA hears “countless stories all year, every year” of student media censorship from unions and universities who “don't understand” how important media coverage is to democracy, engagement, and accountability.

She told the Independent it’s an issue that “isn't going away.”

Ms Collins continued: “This motion isn’t the complete answer, but it is a step in the right direction, and I’m delighted the NUS has decided to work with us to help give the student press the freedom they deserve.

“Student media can now finally expect the right to fairly report on their own elections, something they’ve been ludicrously denied for years at some institutions. We look forward to working with the NUS on this.”

Mr Parker, hailed the passing of the motion as “the starting point to ending systematic censorship” of student media groups.

He continued: “Now, NUS can start supporting student media groups, and allow them to do actual comprehensive coverage.

“Officer elections and the restrictions on media epitomises the current situation with media freedoms. Hopefully this will change how unions operate with their media groups.”

Case studies

Concerns over censorship are numerous, and some students have spoken to the Independent about their experiences.

Ryan Johns, editor of Platform magazine at Nottingham Trent SU, said: “Our SU requires us to show them all of our copy before it goes to print. I understand that this is to ensure we have not breached any legal or ethical issues, however, I feel they use this as an excuse to censor us.”

Tom Butler, editor of York Vision, said: “A huge fuss kicked up earlier this year, when the SU introduced an updated media charter without telling anyone. This led to the formation of a free speech society.

“The SU is more aware now of the damage that can come to its reputation if it is seen to be suppressing the freedom of student press.”

However, it’s not the unions alone that force their demands on young, aspiring journalists. Sarah Gough, Editor of Exeter’s Exeposé, explained how they’ve had to “chop and change” articles and “cut and edit in order to avoid the agro, and potential lawsuits [from the university].”

She said: “It wasn’t under my editorship but, in early 2015, a story was published looking into university managements expenses and, as soon as the paper came out, the university threatened to sue its own SU and forced a reprint.

“A member of university management stormed into our office and demanded a meeting with us, calling our headlines ‘s**t’ after we published a factual story on over 500 staff seeking voluntary severance.”

Hiran Adhia, editor of the Boar at the University of Warwick, said; “I view the relationship between my paper and the SU in a different way, as a ‘trade off’. A closeness with the SU provides a lot of access - which I accept at the cost of the loss of some independence.”

However, when approached by the Independent for comment regarding this, a Warwick SU spokesperson insisted the publication is editorially independent.

The spokesperson said: “All student societies receive an annual grant, with media societies being no exception. They retain editorial independence but, as a membership organisation, are bound by the student-staff protocol.”

This makes reference to a legal obligation put in place to protect staff members from coverage to which they don’t have a right-to-reply.

The spokesperson continued: “In addition, all articles published are subject to standard legal checks beforehand.”

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