Student democracy and student journalism don’t mix

Newspaper publication delayed by Student's Union 3 March 2011

As yet another election season galumphs towards its conclusion; it’s tough for those of us who’ve seen a few of them to shake a sense of deja vu. Student turnover being as rapid as it is, candidates strike the same poses and push the same policies as their forebears did just a few years before – often without even knowing it. As Shirley Bassey put it, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

Most of the time it doesn’t bother us: even the driest campaigns make for occasionally decent copy and a few entertaining columns. This year it even matters how the candidates propose to deal with tuition fees (save our bursaries!). But when the conversation gets round, as it regularly does, to the role of the student newspaper and the nature of editorial appointments… Well, then we get worried.

It is no secret that the relationship between the student union and The Cambridge Student is a complex one. In the 11 years since its inception, the pendulum has swung between interludes of bucolic good will and stand-offs of Cold War proportions. Which, really, is exactly as it should be: if a student union sets out to establish a newspaper based upon the fundamental principle of editorial independence, then it must occasionally expect that newspaper to pursue stories and angles that it won’t like. It’s the nature of the beast, pure and simple.

The problem is that, for a few CUSU devotees, TCS is more trouble than it’s worth. Surely, they argue, it would make everyone’s lives easier (and better fulfil the paper’s constitutional obligation to “benefit all students at Cambridge”) if the Editor-in-Chief was elected. Not only would students get a say in the running of at least one of their media outlets, but also, as a de facto sabbatical officer, the successful candidate would likely be far more sympathetic to the union’s cause.

Viewed in this light, it’s hardly surprising that the idea is something of a politician’s wet dream. If, though, CUSU’s raison d’etre really is to protect the interests of students above those of its executive body, there are several reasons why such a move should be resisted.

First off, TCS, like its rivals, is above all an educational resource. Its greatest worth lies in the opportunity it provides for students to explore the realities of reporting and newspaper production beyond the confines of a degree. For those of us who want to be journalists when we grow up, the experience we get on whichever publication we gravitate towards is priceless.

If only because it broadened this sphere of opportunity beyond the Varsity demesne, TCS is one of the most important concrete contributions that CUSU has made to the University community in recent decades. What successive generations of Sabbs fail to realise, however, is that its value relies as much on the guarantee of autonomy as it does on reliable funding. The experience of running a newspaper is fatally diminished if the editorial priority is anything other than achieving quality and integrity of content.

Arguments like this run the risk of sounding terribly earnest and self-important (we’re only amateur hacks, after all!). However, while very few of us are delusional enough to suggest that a student rag could (or even should) hope to function at the same level as national or local papers, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imitate professional standards and principles wherever we can. Otherwise, frankly, what’s the point?

On this basis alone the notion of elected editors is completely counter-intuitive – show us one credible UK publication that chooses its chief according to a reader poll. More concerning, though, is the apparent inability of our ardent student democrats to recognise that one of the most widely acknowledged responsibilities of the media in a democratic community is to hold institutions to account for their shortcomings. If a publication is forcefully absorbed into the fabric of the very institution it is supposed to critique, that task becomes a great deal more difficult.

Take Royal Holloway’s magazine, The Orbital. Published, like TCS, by the student union, the Editor and Deputy-Editor are elected by the student body. By the admission of its own staff, production is a bureaucratic nightmare characterised by petty factionalism and deadlocks over content, all too often resulting in unqualified censorship.

Given that their absurd mission statement calls for “an autonomous operation and advocate freedom of speech, with the final output being constitutionally supervised by the Students’ Union,” , it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

Readers wouldn’t benefit either. Those who genuinely care about the running of the paper that they fund will (and do) get involved; the rest, dare we say it, will be happy as long they’re given thirty-two pages of half-decent content to read.

In the end, the argument for elected editors boils down to little more than a basic misunderstanding of what it is we do as student journalists and why we choose to do it.

It wasn’t always like this – if it had been, the administration which established TCS in 1999 would never have placed such a premium on editorial independence in its constitution. That they did is a gift for which we are profoundly grateful, and one which we hope to see protected for a long time to come.

Jen Mills and Jess Touschek are Co-Chairs of The Cambridge Student Board of Directors and former Editors of TCS.

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Newspaper publication delayed by Student’s Union