On the media fascination with student politics

Micha Frazer-Carroll 14 March 2016

There’s no doubt that the media are somewhat obsessed with student activism, with Oxford and Cambridge stealing a lot of headlines. The most recent events gaining attention from the press include Jesus College’s decision to remove a Benin bronze of a Cockerel that was looted under colonial occupation, and Pembroke’s choice to change the theme of its potentially disastrous ‘around the world in 80 days’ bop garnering headlines from the Guardian, the Mail, The Telegraph, BBC News, The Times, and The Mirror. In the midst of this, a student tragically died in Girton, but most nationals were in too much of a flurry over sensationalising these incidents of student activism to notice. 

Moreover, political events in Cambridge are repeatedly reported with terms such as ‘sexist’, ‘racist’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ featured in scare quotes, whilst the Mail described our activities as ‘becoming more and more embarrassing’ and The Times reporting an ‘atmosphere of increasing tension in Cambridge’. Press sensationalisation is nothing new – however what they choose to sensationalise is of note. Why is the media so fascinated with our politics and the way we organise, and why are we continually so misrepresented? 

It feels like a larger-than-average political gulf undoubtedly exists between our generation and those that came before us. One factor that exacerbates this is our use of social media; we network, and organise and engage in the majority of our political discourse online, meaning that campaigns gather speed like never before. The things we are angry about never fail to surprise journalists outside of the ‘bubble’; we’re no longer kicking up a fuss about the Vietnam war, but instead drawing attention to issues that aren’t even on national press’ radar. Further, the fact that Facebook allows campaigns to go viral in a matter of minutes means that the Mail have something new to sensationalise on a weekly basis. 

It’s also important to acknowledge an understandable difference in attitude that comes with the amount of money we dish out to attend university. The continual media narrative that portrays political students as entitled and spoiled rich liberal kids who don’t know how good they have it, fails to see that unlike the students of ten or twenty years ago, we are paying customers who shed out £9,000 a year for a product. Many students of our parents’ generation didn’t just attend university for free, but were paid, and thus naturally an attitude of ‘be grateful or go elsewhere’ emerged amongst them – university was a public service. But when we pay thousands for a product that oppresses, marginalises and erases us, we undoubtedly have greater grounds to complain and demand change.

And perhaps most importantly, it’s worth considering that much of national press is run by Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Not only are they somewhat terrified that in five to ten years the ‘PC brigade’ will be running and reforming their industries, but they’re also watching us change treasured yet problematic traditions of their university days. A substantial proportion of those reporting on these issues will be graduates from Oxford, Cambridge and other ‘elite’ universities whose actions they so closely monitor. Thus when they cry ‘political correctness gone mad’ we should consider whether what we are really seeing is nostalgia-tainted laments of ‘that cockerel was a memorable decoration in my undergraduate dining hall,’ or ‘I remember when I used to wear blackface to college bops.’ It might be as simple as ex-Oxford and Cambridge students mourning the lost privileges of their early twenties, when minorities didn’t have access to these institutions, let alone the tools to change them.

Of course, media attention can be a positive force in student politics too; but reporting on our actions without consulting us, along with presenting our activism as being characterised by ‘rows’ and ‘tension’ is misleading. Sometimes there is widespread controversy and a disagreement between authorities and student bodies, as seen in the case of Rhodes Must Fall. But this narrative shouldn’t be used as a template – in the case of the Benin Bronze, the motion to remove it passed with an overwhelming majority within the student body, and the college was largely co-operative. To frame it as a ‘row’ is simply inaccurate and contributes to a narrative of students vs college, which isn’t always the case. But to admit that this kind of co-operation sometimes occurs would be to acknowledge something that right-wing and uninformed journalists fear; that if you actually listen to us, what we’re asking for really isn’t that unreasonable.