China, North Korea and now the Union of Brunel Students? One would not expect to see those three entities in the same sentence but that might be the future after this Thursday’s Union Meeting. According to bye-laws set out by the Union, the UBS has the ‘power to veto articles’ written by Le Nurb, Brunel’s student newspaper, at any given time. While this may prove useful when protecting the Union from any legal allegations, this serves as a hindrance to freedom of the press and more importantly, freedom of speech.
Le Nurb’s Media Chair Kirsty Capes wrote a piece on the paper’s online edition, describing a bye-law that has caused much controversy within the Media Association. The bye-law in question can be found here.
Under bye-law 3.3.13 iv, the student paper cannot ‘draw attention to any inaction, any misbehaviour or any abusive of power committed by elected officials’. This could essentially promote Union propaganda and present a false image of the Union, however, what’s interesting is that this has been done in the past.
Brings the UBS into disrepute
According to the bye-law, an article can be removed if it ‘brings the UBS into disrepute’. Vague definition of disrepute not-withstanding, what the Union must understand is that being brought into “disrepute” as stated in their bye-laws isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In Issue #83 of Route 66 (Brunel University’s student magazine), it was highlighted that the Union had published a document entitled “UBS Equal Opportunities Policy”, which differed from the "Equal Opportunities Policy” outlined in the Constitution. Route 66 had brought the matter to all four UBS exec members who denied granting permission to publish the policy, but then a motion was instigated to call for the posters to be removed along with an investigation into how such a mistake occurred. This brief example just emphasises how important a free student paper is: it grants the ability to hold the powers that be to account.
That’s just want Le Nurb did back in 2005, albeit in a more humorous way. Featuring an “Exec-o-meter” in several of its issues, Le Nurb plotted what the four student union officers had been doing using a scale that went from “Mandela Magic!” to “Kennedy Katastrophe!”. While it’s not quite the ‘fourth estate’ we’d like to see, the ‘Exec-o-meter’ does highlight interesting points. Julia Noble, Vice President of Services and Marketing was marked down for “her loutish behaviour in the Academy” in November 2006, which was a drop from her ranking in September where she was noted for articles submitted to Le Nurb, representing a “sign of concern for student well-being”.
One must question what process Le Nurb used when producing its ‘Exec-o-meter’ especially when in the same February 2006 issue, Tony Jackson, VP of Sports and Societies was given an extra point for attempting “to mount the Stag that used to live in Loco’s” while Sarah Batts, VP of Education and Welfare earned major points for speaking to Le Nurb about their upcoming biscuit challenge. Debatable statistical procedures aside, the ‘Exec-o-meter’ was a unique way of assessing the UBS and may have potentially “brought the UBS in disrepute” and yet it was published throughout the 2005-2006 issues of Le Nurb.
Holding the Powers to Account
Brunel students are constantly affected by decisions made by the Union and on a large part these decisions have been positive: making the library open 24 hours a day, running sexual health awareness campaigns and the Christmas Shoebox appeal. However, at times, their decisions or their involvement should be examined, to ensure that the individuals the student population voted in hold to their promises.
In a January 2012 issue, Le Nurb’s Media Chair Tom Scott questioned the construction of what is now, the Costcutters inside the Hamilton Centre. In his piece, Mr Scott writes that talks for the outlet “have been ongoing for at least five months without any acknowledgement” of the student body, and when a panel of student union officers and chairs met to request a new location, “plans were too far-gone”.
What is more interesting is that the UBS was “mandated at Student Assembly to lobby for a Co-Op should another outlet be built”, and thus one wonders what role the UBS has in the plan to opt for an additional Costcutter rather than a Co-operative store. Tom Scott’s piece did not contain a response from the UBS, however, it begs the question: Did he not think of asking the Union or he was prevented from publishing their answer?
Transparency Versus Censorship
Rather than censor any negative comments made by any student media organisation, the Union should embrace them and respond to them appropriately, much like how RAG Chair, Nicole Eversfield did in December 2012. Responding to the revelation that alleged sex offender, Jimmy Saville served as a patron of Brunel RAG in 1968, Ms Eversfield decided to put forward a motion to de-patronise Mr Saville and sever all links he may have had. Opting not for censorship but for transparency, Ms Nicole Eversfield said: “the Union of Brunel Students is an organisation that prides itself on its transparency”, but one wonders where is this transparency now?
It’s not like the Union doesn’t have a history of being transparent and responsive. In Issue #84 of Route 66, Alex Buchanan, then-editor of Route 66, wrote an editorial piece questioning the Union’s decision to censor several pieces on the basis of being on a shaky legal ground. The pieces were on Route 66’s interviews with the candidates standing for Uxbridge parliamentary elections, and the Union’s request to alter certain bits of the articles were because the candidates were not asked identical questions, nor was the cover of the issue representative of the seven major political parties of the United Kingdom.
The UBS’s reasoning is well-founded but Mr Buchanan, in his piece, questioned why Brad Milliken, President of 2004-2005, initially approved the issue but then asked it to be altered later. Mr Milliken did respond in the same issue and gave his perspective on what happened; this begs the question why can’t the current Union and all future Unions do the same?
Mr Buchanan’s comments in his piece still hold up today, especially in light of the Union’s bye-laws: “we have a Union that is terrified of getting sued - but it’s mindset of not wanting to get itself in any trouble whatsoever has led to it alienating the very students it is supposed to start”. As he says in his closing paragraph “the Union has gone from protecting students to protecting itself, and I doubt that this trend will ever change”, and one wonders if after nine years, Mr Buchanan was right.
What’s more puzzling is that in previous issues of Le Nurb and Route 66, the Union was perfectly okay with criticising other bodies and other institutions, even their very own vice-chancellor. Steven Schwartz, Brunel’s vice-chancellor caused an uproar when he said “plagiarism, incivility, rudeness and reneging on legitimate debts - all of those are depressingly common among university students”.
2004-2005 UBS President Brad Milliken was quoted then saying in response to Mr. Scwartz’s comments that while Steven was talking about students, Mr. Miliken felt that he was basing it on his own experience at Brunel and that he was “shitting in his own back garden saying that about me and my students.”
While it was an understandable matter for the UBS to respond to, it seems a little hypocritical for the UBS to have the power and freedom to criticise any individual and body, even ones from their own home, and yet refuse to take the same from a student media organisation.
Government and Union
The People’s Republic of China censors subjects that include democracy, corruption as well as the past and current failures of the Communist Party while in contrast, Sweden was the first country to guarantee freedom of the press. It’s puzzling and frankly, quite alarming to find that the direction the Union wants to head to is not one of democracy, despite being a democratically elected body.
National papers and media organisations are free to criticise the UK government and their respective leaders; why can’t Brunel University’s media do the same? It seems that what the UBS fears more than the media criticising it, is itself and its officers. The Union should realise that and rectify this internal problem, rather than going after those whose job is to hold them to account in the public interest.
I implore each and every one of you to attend the Union Meeting this Thursday November 27 at 6 pm in Lecture Centre E to support freedom of the press and to reject any form of censorship.
Hon Jiun Wong is Radio Brunel's Production Manager and a Masters Journalism student at Brunel University London.
Le Nurb's archives date back to the 1960s and are available to view by request. Please contact the Media Chair for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org