As the outgoing editor for Brunel’s student newspaper Le Nurb, I’ve seen two years of development and growth within the student media community at my University. Here, our fat cat executives are painted as villains, cutting bursaries and services, and getting bankrolled by the students’ money. Our Vice Chancellor recently signed a letter supporting £9k tuition fees. But somehow, the biggest conflicts and obstacles do not come from the University when it comes to censorship, but from within our very own students’ unions; the ones who will insist that they are here to represent students. Student journalism across the country is changing very rapidly, and a lethal concoction of censorship, austerity and apathy is helping these changes flourish.
When I started writing for my student newspaper I expected to be publishing difficult and critical revelations about the senior management in the top tiers of the University’s infrastructure. What I didn’t expect was the continued and systematic censorship forced upon myself and my fellow reporters by our own Students’ Union.
A Students’ Union is there to represent its students. On the whole, Brunel’s Union does a very good job at this; they listen to students and implement their feedback and concerns where they can. They are constantly looking for new ways to make students’ lives at Brunel better. What seems to be the case not only at Brunel but at universities up and down the UK is that while Unions represent the ‘lay-student’ very well, they do not consider those working on their campus newspapers to be in the same category of ‘student’ as everyone else. Unions see student journalists as both a nuisance or threat; and a free staff member who can leave their studies and their job at the drop of a hat to promote whatever initiative they see fit. This mentality is allowed to go ahead because students’ unions are being run by corporate executives who puppet their sabbatical officers and impose crippling restrictions on anyone who attempts to speak out against their behaviour. More worryingly, students’ unions will go to extraneous lengths to protect the reputation and assets of themselves and their affiliated University.
A narrative of censorship is a common experience amongst student reporters at universities. Contributors are often genuinely afraid of writing anything that might be seen to criticise their Union for fear of repercussions. After speaking to other Union-funded newspapers across the UK, I have come to realise that there is a creeping culture of control in terms of how Unions interact with their student media. Unions are more than happy to utilise their publication to advertise their club nights, their discount schemes, or other Union initiatives. But as soon as something unsavoury crawls out of the woodwork regarding the Union and how it operates, communication paths are shut down and journalists are left in the dark or feeling such pressure not to write a story that they choose to stay silent.
The actions of Unions toward student media is a combination of tactical censorship and fear mongering so that they can keep the student press in their back pocket. How is it okay that I, as a student representing my peers, cannot hold my Union to account for their behaviour?
Student media is, and always has been, a platform for students to voice the issues that matter to them. We cannot accurately represent our students if we suffer from constant fear of being gagged by the Union for the sake of reputation.
Relationships are based upon a huge power imbalance and a dependency, and Unions use it to bully and silence their student newspapers. As an institution with a duty of care and advocacy to its members, this behaviour is absolutely not acceptable. Student reporters feel that they cannot report upon the stories that are the most important and vital to their readers. It has to stop.