The gag reflex: How student unions censor student newspapers

Student newspapers across the country have been placed under restrictions by their unions which prevent them from publishing articles union officers deem unsuitable. From Central Lancashire to Leeds, Sheffield and SOAS in London, the start of a new term has seen a surge in these gagging orders.

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has been the focus of most coverage this week after the editorial team of its student newspaper ‘Pluto' were presented with a new code of conduct by its union forbidding its journalists from speaking to members of the public without first going obtaining express written permission from the student union's media officer, Sophie Bennett. It also instructed media groups, including the university's radio and TV stations, not to comment or report on any UCLan members of staff, unless thought to be in the public interest. Once again, however, the final decision over the legitimacy of the public interest justification lies with the union media officer. The decision to issue these new guidelines came after the newspaper printed an article exposing jokes made on Twitter by the union's Education Officer, Joey Guy, concerning April Jones and Jimmy Savile, for which he was suspended. The measures taken by the union have attracted fury from students at the paper who say their editorial independence has been seriously compromised.

Nor are UCLan student journalists alone in experiencing such treatment from the bodies supposed to represent their interests. Leeds University student union it was reported last week allegedly threatened legal action against its own newspaper, whose editor is voted in by the student body, to prevent them from fully reporting on a police investigation into irregularities in the union's financial accounts. Despite agreeing to an interview with newspaper reporters where he admitted the allegations, Chief Executive for the student union Aidan Gills, in an embarrassing turn of events, is afterwards said to have contacted the newspaper to demand that they withdraw the article completely.

Public outcry after intrusion by university unions has sometimes been so heated as to force a U-turn. This was the case recently at the University of Sheffield where an edition of its student newspaper, Forge Press, was retracted altogether for its cover story exposing the use of a legal loophole by the university to pay its workers less; protests by students forced the union to re-print it after all. At SOAS, however, the editor of its official newspaper

was driven to resign after its union removed their article about potential corruption over possibly missing charity money.

When approached for comment by The Cambridge Student, UCLan Media Officer Sophie Bennett insisted "There has been no attempt by me personally, or my team, to stifle any debate on this issue."

The UCLan code of conduct reads as follows:

1) Individual members of the media groups shall not hold themselves out to speak on behalf of their group by reference to their position title or otherwise without the express written permission of the media officer, or their chosen representative.

2) Media groups will not comment or report on UCLan and UCLAN SU members of staff unless it is in the public interest, in which case the public interest reason will be formerly recorded and logged with the media officer.

3) When researching potential articles/news stories media groups will be sensitive to making use of information gained via social media.

A final thought: Sophie Bennett is acting both as student union Media Officer and Editor-in-Chief of Pluto. One must question why such a blatant conflict of interest has been allowed to take place?

Louise Ashwell - Deputy News Editor

Article first published 25 October 2012

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