As technology broadens publications’ reach and heightens their profiles, the impact levied by student-led investigative reporting has increased.
But with added influence comes backlash. A survey by The Student of student newspaper editorial teams across the country has shown that instances of press intimidation and censorship on student campuses are on the rise.
A University of Cardiff editor, his girlfriend and a close friend were harassed and threatened by rogue members of their student union over a critical story he published. Another newspaper recently saw an entire week’s edition gutted by its student union over legal threats later appearing to be invalid. And a University of Plymouth fourth-year was threatened with expulsion last year for printing a story revealing significant cuts to student services by the university.
The incidents are characterised by often-terrifying legal quandaries pitting mammoth institutions against the students they normally serve. Student journalists find themselves plunged into alien legal environments with little recourse or advice. Commitment to journalistic integrity clashes against pragmatic concerns for their academic careers.
Sometimes the pressure comes from the universities themselves. Other times, student union representatives use their funding relationships with the newspapers to request or demand redactions of stories.
Last June, Michael O’Connell Davidson, current editor of the Cardiff weekly newspaper Gair Rhydd, wrote a lengthy investigative piece called “Picking Up the Pieces”, examining the failures of his university and student union to address the needs of disabled students.
The damning report, which has led to Davidson’s nomination for a National Journalism Award, exposed substantive failures of student union policy in the area and included a wealth of student anecdotes, many anonymous.
Signs of tension emerged during the research stage. Various representatives of the student union were “deliberately uncooperative” in response to queries, Davidson told The Student.
The conflict escalated after publication.
“There were multiple attempts to get us to retract the piece after publication,” Davidson recounted, citing two employees, including a member of the student union communications team.
A friend of his, unnamed, was reportedly approached off campus by student council members in an intimidating manner and told to relay a message on to Davidson that the union controlled funding to the Gair Ryhdd and should be listened to. That same message was taken to his girlfriend, who interpreted it as “an implied threat or a gesture of superiority.”
Davidson is careful to maintain that the threats were from two rogue actors, one of them working on a temporary basis, and that they didn’t represent the official stance of the student union or its senior leaders. However the experience rattled him, and after a fruitless 10-day investigation and 6 more months, he noted that the SU “has still not clarified their position on the entire affair.”
“I found it odd then, and find it odd now,” he said. “You’d think the foundation of what we were doing was something people wouldn’t take a stand against.”
The Cardiff Student Union had not responded for comment to The Student at time of press.
Sometimes the pressure not to publish derives from legal conundrums relating to the financial ties of publications to their student unions. In these cases inexperience forces many editors to take a cautious approach and retract articles in the face of uncertainty.
Several weeks ago, an editor was forced to take an entire edition off the stands by the university’s student union, which cited legal concerns surrounding an article critical of the union. It wasn’t until after a phone call to a lawyer several days later that such legal concerns were revealed to be baseless.
The editor, who requested anonymity of their name and university due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that at that point due to the time lost, “we were left with very little choice [not to publish].”
“We’d made a level news piece,” the editor told The Student.
“I don’t have any media law training. It felt like a manipulation of my naiveté.”
In some cases student newspapers must contend with a backlash from the universities themselves, and the clout and direct influence that they carry. The threatened consequences in such cases can become grave and personal.
Last spring, vice presidents of the University of Plymouth Student Union (UPSU) with close ties to the university administration threatened Katie French with severe disciplinary measures including “stage 3 dismissal from university or suspension” for an unflattering article about funding cuts.
French, who “panicked and burst into tears” at the severity of the threat, which was inflicted 4 weeks before her dissertation deadline, ultimately decided to stand by the article, published in her newspaper The Knowledge.
The action was not ultimately followed through; French graduated in the spring and now works for a professional newspaper in Devon. And for its part, the article was a success: provoking a “strong response from the student body” and “several petitions to save student services”, French told The Student.
But the terror was still palpable.
“It was suffocating,” she said.
“Our student newspaper had no training on media law so we didn’t know our rights.”
It was that uncertainty and the accompanying doubt, French says, that caused the most stress. While she sought help from senior editors, as editor in chief she felt pressure to steady her emotions.
“You don’t want to give the impression to your team that you’re not in control,” she said, citing the isolating nature of her position.
UPSU told The Guardian that they have received a complaint on the incident and are “taking it seriously.”
But French suggested the nature of the relationship of the union to the university meant their influence was constrained.
“The issue with the Plymouth Student Union is that because it has such a close knit relationship with the communications department of the university, it’s very much on a tight leash,” she told The Student.
As legal imbroglios become ever more common to UK student publications—The Student being no exception—one national organisation has emerged to provide assistance and support.
The Student Publication Association is a newly-formed collective of various student newspapers with the aim of sharing tactics and improvements. Recently they’ve received a flood of queries regarding unions or universities cutting funding to publications or impinging on editorial freedom.
Acting as an effective journalists’ union for students, the SPA provides support by directly inserting itself into conflict resolution between the unions and the papers.
“We stand by all of our members and won’t just sit down and accept it when unions cull and control freedom of the press or the management of a publication,” SPA chair Sophie Davis, told The Student.
In Katie French’s case, the SPA provided specific advice on how negotiations with the union should proceed, how to utilise social media to raise awareness, and how to appeal to the national press (French broke her silence on her ordeal in an article in The Guardian two weeks ago). Additionally, they drafted an open letter addressed to the union to resolve the conflict.
For Davis and the rest of the SPA administration, the origin of the recent surge in press intimidation is simple: a fundamental lack of understanding and respect of the integrity of the publications on the part of universities and student unions. While acknowledging that the financial support the unions provide is necessary and commendable, Davis claimed it often clouds elected representatives’ ideas of how the paper should be treated.
“[Student unions] do not always recognise that publications that are aimed at student audiences should be allowed editorial freedom, much like national newspapers do with freedom of the press,” she told The Student.
Whether accurate or not, this perception holds sway among many editors surveyed by The Student. Even where direct legal incidents don’t arise, suspicion breeds tensions behind the scenes.
One editor, who also requested anonymity, cited the recent examples as indicative of the “disgusting way [their university] views its students.”
The editor continued: “We are encouraged to excel only for the sake of league tables and lucrative PR opportunities. We can apply what the university teaches us only so long as we remain passive and what we do doesn’t offend the university’s public image.”
Jasmine Andersson, editor of the Leeds Gryphon, agreed: “It’s such a frustrating process and it is really difficult. I think for the most part it’s down to lack of understanding; people who just don’t understand the role of a journalist.”
“They think of us as some kind of ‘hack hooha’ and that we just kind of want to do things for the sake of it.”
Real-world journalists and academics added criticism to organisational overreach.
“Any organisation that actively seeks to avoid examination looks slightly creepy,” Deborah Orr, political journalist and columnist to The Guardian told The Student.
“When an organisation that exists to promote intellectual enquiry does so, it tends to look extremely creepy,” she continued.
“If the information is being properly and ethically obtained, there isn’t much [the universities] should be able to do to punish them,” Mark Hanna, senior lecturer in Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield told The Student.
A frequent target of derision among editors surveyed by The Student are the universities’ and student unions’ communications officers, whom one editor referred to anonymously as “spin doctors”.
Ronald Kerr, Press and Public Relations Manager for the University of Edinburgh, takes issues with these characterisations.
“We always try and be as helpful as we can,” he told The Student in reference to student media inquiries. “We always try and get back with an answer that’s transparent.”
Kerr maintains that he would treat a student newspaper no differently than a professional one. But he alluded to methodological differences between students and seasoned reporters.
“Student journalists are often…” he said, searching for a word. “Impassioned.”
“But that’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with it. We don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade.”
Kerr was unaware of any disciplinary procedures at the University of Edinburgh similar to the ones threatened against Katie French at Plymouth for “commercial interests”, but did claim that there had to be some limits for reporting.
“There are definitely commercial considerations on the part of the university that must be respected in some cases,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Some maintain true editorial freedom can only come from financial independence.
“My advice would be to go independent,” Davidson, editor of the Gair Rhydd said regarding embattled student publications.
“There’s no point working at the university’s astroturfed PR department, and I’m sure that’s what many people would like to change things to.”
Dan Scott Lintott, current editor of The Journal, published independently, and editor emeritus of The Student, funded by the Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA), compared the experiences and came to a similar conclusion.
“[Press intimidation] is definitely less of an issue at The Journal merely because it has no obligation to EUSA,” he told The Student.
“The difficulty with The Student is that pressure from EUSA is unique as the paper has nearly all its adverts from them.” (The EUSA marketing advisor could not be contacted at time of press.)
But other editors dismissed the notion that their financial ties prejudiced their autonomy.
In reference to their student union, Ali Begg, editor in chief of the Glasgow Guardian told The Student: “Our relationship with the SRC is positive and can be incredibly valuable for the work we do. However, we remain an editorial force that is ultimately autonomous.”
“Our student media is generally regarded as a credit to the Guild and getting good stories that aren’t always favourable to them is part of our good reputation,” Harrison Jones and Gemma Joyce, editors of the Exeter Exeposé told The Student.
Nonetheless, as incidents similar to French’s and Davidson’s mount, organisations like the SPA hope to light the way.
“Without freedom, publications are merely an addition to the unions’ voices and not the students’,” Davis, the SPA chair, concluded.
“Thus the student voice is forgotten and ignored.”