What the Mancunion scandal means for us.


By Nick M Duffy - Posted on 21 February 2013

I was appalled, but not particularly surprised, to hear about some of the fallout to a story in the Mancunion this week, which demonstrates some of the attacks student journalists are facing nationally.

The original story -  a pretty solid exclusive and some of the strongest student journalism I've read - raised questions about the deep-set and harrowing levels of extremism present at the events of a union-backed and funded society. It was obtained by a student reporter by way of covert recording at one of the society's events, which was free and open to all students.

From publication the video and article quickly spread, first within the University then beyond it to the outside world, with a pace rarely seen by any student publications.

Obviously I don't have access to their website's figures, but it's fair to say that the 65 comments, 7000 views on Youtube and doubtless thousands of hits would make most local newspaper editors salivate, let alone student ones.

 

Having exposed such massive lapses in responsibility, you'd have thought the journalists involved would have been praised, lauded, and congratulated for their work, for exposing such a big lapse in Union policy. Not so.

The Students' Union have effectively condemned the journalists for the story, stating "We are deeply concerned with the covert filming of a student event within the Union" and  "we have today initiated an investigation into the story in the Mancunion, both in terms of the student society meeting described and the way in which the information was obtained."

This bizarre and disturbing decision takes on more malice when you consider what it is advocating nationally: pick any one of the tens of scandals that have broken in the last decade thanks to covert recording, from corruption to match fixing to cash for influence, and imagine that instead of an investigation into the scandal itself, the government had ordered an investigation into the journalists who leaked it.

That is essentially what this is, and it is not an isolated incident.

 

Earlier this month Edinburgh Students' Association went as far as getting an injunction against its own newspaper to prevent them publishing details of an elected officer's suspension. The paper, which maintains that students have a right to know what happened, published a redacted version with the word 'DISGRACE' covering the story.

Sadly, these are two of the more lucky publications, as well - both the Mancunion in Manchester and The Student in Edinburgh were autonomously run by students, both have ample volunteers and years of prestige to build on, and both were able to spread the stories quite far. 

There are likely countless more examples which will not get the same degree of notoriety, as the same autonomy and momentum simply does not exist for them, and as such stories which could generate a scandal would not be published in the first place. 

 

There's good reason the student press is under attack more than ever before: people in power are beginning to understand the power of social media, and the myth that university publications exist inside bubbles impervious to the outside world is finally beginning to get cast out.

Where a story in a student publication ten years ago may have struggled to gain any attention whatsoever outside the university, they are now readily available to the outside world over the internet. As anyone who has glanced at the Medwire in the past year will know, student publications are more than capable of going viral and hitting the local, national and international press with stories which could be seen as damaging to an institution's reputation.

Unions, associations and university management boards are all too aware of this, and I suspect a great many have already clamped down, ensuring any scandal is a scandal never to be told.  As student publications almost always don't have the staff, funds expertise or conviction in ideology of their commercial press counterparts, most of these battles will never be reported.

I feel there's a real danger that most student publications will end up fully controlled, censored and funded by unions, in a lot of cases acting as nothing more than an extension of the PR department.

I don't want to hold the Medwire up as a pure example of brilliance either: the vast majority of advertising revenue, which is needed for its continued independent existence, is from the three Universities on campus and from their partners. If they took exception to any less-than-favourable content and pulled their advertising, it would likely be dead or otherwise hugely crippled within a year. It would seem there is no model for a truly independent student publication.

 

The next question is, if they are capable of doing such damage, why do you need a student press anyway?

The answer is simple: students' unions and students' associations are funded with the money of students. They have a direct obligation to students. Moreso, their officers are democratically elected by students, and as you've probably heard lecturers say a thousand times over, there can be no true democracy without a free press to hold that power to account. The obligations of the Unions and elected officers to students should not be understated, as they are the main structure to keep campus life running.

This sounds a bit pompous, but it's true: student papers have a very important job to do in holding the power of unions and universities over students to account, and given the current trend of public sector cutbacks nationally (especially for crucial things like welfare spending), it's more important than ever right now.

Without dedicated student journalists at every single university making sure scandals don't go unreported, the nature of university as a fast-moving place of transition where few people are for an extended period of time means most deep-rooted problems could go unaddressed, raised by generation after generation of students but never rectified.

Beyond this, too, a free student press is an invaluable tool to future journalists. Working on it can put you in regular contact with people working on regional and national newspapers, and a well-written investigative story in a student outlet can genuinely bring with it offers of sought-after work experience from publications that otherwise would never have heard of you.

Reading biographies and autobiographies of notable journalists, it will often strike you how many of them got their first rung onto the ladder of journalism through the student press. The link that the student press has to the national press should not be understated.

 

I'm genuinely not sure what the answer to the attacks that student journalists face should be: I think both the NUS and NUJ might have a role to play in defending student publications, and safeguarding a free independent of a student press. Perhaps instead there could be a new model for student publications which free them from their reliance on the university and Union for funding? Or maybe it is enough to have dedicated students working to ensure power is held to account one way or another, and that student democracy doesn't rely on a student press as much as I think.

I'd love to hear some other people's thoughts on this though, because it's massively under-reported and under-discussed territory.