On the week of 26th September, the Mancunion student newspaper at the University of Manchester released a hard-hitting front page: their headline was an editorial,“Silenced by the University”.
In the editorial, Jenny Sterne explains: “The university forced The Mancunion to pull an interview with [Manchester’s Vice-Chancellor] Nancy Rothwell from our first print edition of term by threatening legal action.”
She went on to explain that the university had requested to see the article before publication although no prior agreement had been made, and that the university went on to request changes in the interview.
The Mancunion sought legal advice, after which the university retracted the claims and the newspaper went to print – with the editorial, the interview itself in full and now an opinion piece from the intervieweer himself, Jacob Nicholas.
All of the content of the interview was on tape and should not have been disputed, but over and above this, the incident shows disregard for the editorial independence of the paper and the duty of accurate reporting.
In the days since the news broke, I have been in contact with Jenny Sterne and our discussions of what happened have only reaffirmed my belief that the editorial independence of a student newspaper must be safeguarded. Manchester University should never have asked to see the interview before publication in the first place: it is not their policy with national publications, and the same respect and trust should be extended to student journalists.
Last week, it was also a full year since The Badger and Sussex University made headlines for the publication of a controversial story which we were told was potentially defamatory: we ended up cutting the story itself out of the paper in order to avoid having to throw the whole thing away when we were prohibited from distributing it.
Whatever the final view Sussex students hold on that incident – maybe some think it was censorship, maybe some think it was not – the issue remains that student newspapers are closely linked to their Students’ Unions and to their Universities, and that sometimes conflict arises.
Whenever these problems surface for student newspapers, I don’t believe it is simply an issue for that publication. It is a general issue, and one which could effect any and all publications across the country. I have offered my support to The Mancunion team, but I believe it is now time for both readers and writers to speak out in favour of the rights of student papers. You deserve a free press, even if we’re funded by a university or Student Union. You deserve transparency and you deserve to hear the news which student journalists uncover.
The coexistance between universities, Student Unions and student newspapers doesn’t have to be one of conflict: with clear guidelines, respect and transparency, things can go well. At The Badger we’re greatful that (although we are in the same boat as The Mancunion in that we are completely funded by our Student Union, and that the budgets for our Student Unions come from the University) we had a very ineteresting ineterview with our new Vice-Chancellor in which there was absolute agreement from the start that everything on tape would be printed just so.
However, we know it isn’t always as easy as it has thankfully been for The Badger in recent months, and I’m sure we’ll all keenly be following the Mancunion and offering support and encouragement as they start the process of clarifying and fixing the relationship.
Serendipitously, I found the Manifesto of the 2007-08 Badger editorial team in the same edition we have featured for our Badger Time Capsule: there is a section which I would like to share with you as I believe it is pertinent to the times:
“The Badger is a union publication but belongs to the student body. It should be loyal to our readers and accountable, focusing on the audience, rather than the writers. Although The Badger is funded by USSU and, ultimately, by the University, it is a paper made by students, for students. Students should at all times feel it is their paper and that they can contribute to it at any time.”
I believe that what The Mancunion have clearly shown us is to whom a student paper has a duty: to readers. To students.
And in order to safeguard the rights of readers and indeed of student journalists, we need to rally behind any paper which runs into problems accomplishing this aim.