The Sun appears to be setting for the presence of sensationalist papers such as The Daily Mail and The Express at British universities. A motion passed at City University last week placed a ban on these tabloids from their London campus on the grounds that they propagate “fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media”. The news was not met lightly by critics of the ‘censorial left’, and the event has opened the subject of press freedom and censorship up for debate.
Calls to boycott right-wing tabloids are not new. They are largely deemed xenophobic – labelling refugees as ‘cockroaches’ – racist, homophobic and sexist. It is a grimy world fuelled by hate and distrust, of stories blown out of context, and one that attracts millions of daily readers. Campaigns – for example the recently established Stop Funding Hate, which urges big companies such as British Airways, Asda, Gillette and John Lewis to terminate their association with these tabloids – have increased in volume of late. In January 2015, The Sun dropped its infamous Page 3 after being a constant presence in the paper for over four decades, after many years of public debate that culminated in an online petition of more than 215,000 signatures. While this focused on only one page, the event proved the power of campaigning. Newspapers are dependent on their readership, and so efforts to shame them have a ripple effect.
Although tabloids have long been regarded as hate-fuelling machines, making outrageous claims and showing questionable respect for privacy, they are arguably still representative of their readers. By buying a copy or merely perusing the website, these readers are subscribing to a way of thinking with which they most identify. If action was taken to marginalise these papers, it would only stoke anti-establishment sentiment, the reader of these illicit news sources doing so in an act of defiance. In banishing these outlets to ‘news hell’ our judgement of world affairs and general public sentiment might also be narrowed.
The claim that these news sources have no place in an academic environment is damaging to the reputation that universities welcome diversity of opinion – actively reaffirming the ‘us against them’ accusation. Further accusations of hypocrisy arise in the case of City University’s action, since many of its students are encouraged to take up graduate jobs with The Daily Mail. Banning can be counterproductive; instead, pressure could be placed on the editors and businesses to rethink their often misleading and antagonistic reporting procedure. They need to develop a social conscience and, at the very least, be held accountable for the fact that words can do harm.
The press has made a meal out of the current state of university sensitivity. Claims that British institutions have become censorious and too politically correct buttress the growing support for the alt-right, a movement that exists predominantly online. Newspapers of all ilk frequently question whether our generation have unwittingly promoted the end of free speech. There is the ongoing debacle of no-platforming, a process whereby speakers may be barred from giving lectures on the grounds that their views go against the institution’s ethos, or, quite simply, might upset.
Consuming the news has never been easier. Regardless of a university banning a publication or not, it will still be available for those who seek it. While the ban itself would have had great effect on campus life a decade ago, it is limited today. The act will be purely symbolic, a way of public disassociation.
Everything we read has a currency; by choosing what we read and how, we are consciously voting for what we think best. It is not up to universities to decide for us what we should or should not read. We should acknowledge the fact that in the eyes of some, polite society is smug and intolerable. In any case, a fettered press is a dull press.
Image: Daniel Novta