Article by Daniel Webb and Jessica Fuhl
Right now, today, the topic of injunctions and the right to privacy and freedom of speech are being debated in the media. Newspapers across the country are speaking out in protest after not being able to cover the story of a footballer who had an affair; and just this morning, Prime Minister David Cameron himself labelled the whole debacle ‘unfair’.
At the same time, we at the Wessex Scene feel we are effectively being censored, and have been for the past year. SUSU is intended to support the Wessex Scene, a department within SUSU which is supposed to be a journalistically independent entity, whilst protecting the overall integrity of SUSU as an organisation. It is the job of the Wessex Scene to ensure our sabbaticals, and all students in positions of power, are made accountable for their actions.
Unfortunately, throughout this year, the Wessex Scene team has been prevented from publishing a number of articles, images and even a cartoon.
The catalyst for this letter was the latest issue of the Wessex Scene in print, a special edition on Sex, Drugs and Alcohol, three things closely linked to many students lives here in Southampton. After a long and drawn out period of preparation (more than goes into a standard edition) the editorial team decided to re-run last year’s sex survey asking more questions whilst also finding out about Southampton students’ drug and alcohol use.
Unfortunately, we were told that the survey we produced “wasn’t of any use to the Union” and didn’t supposedly fit the values of the Students’ Union – remember that list of words you were supposed to associate with the logo redesigns?
We were then told that the front cover design, produced by two Winchester School of Art Students, didn’t fit the values of the Union either and due to the minimal cleavage and general sexual nature was unacceptable as a front cover in the SU as it was a place “where children may see it” – we kid you not. For this reason we are unable to show you the image we talk about, but can send you to to this link to view it for yourselves on one of our editor’s personal blogs – (if you are with any children please cover their eyes now!):
For us, this last desperate attempt at making the Wessex Scene just another marketing tool for the Union was the last straw.
This year we have also been censored on a number of other occasions. We were prevented from publishing the following cartoon produced by students who collaboratively go by the name Ten-a-Penny, because it actively offends each and every student at our University:
We were prevented from publishing an article about a student who smuggled nun chucks and similar objects across an Asian border, presumably in case the country itself tried to sue the Students’ Union, and because it simultaneously promoted the idea of smuggling; apparently following the article people would know where to go to commit the crime.
We were also prevented from publishing an anonymous article which interviewed a local drug dealer.
The whole issue of the student elections coverage is a similar problem. Whilst this debate is a whole other issue, it highlights the ways in which this damages not only the Wessex Scene but SUSU as a whole, as the majority of reporting on the elections was left to the our friendly rivals the Soton Tab, who have no obligation to fair journalism and impartiality. For that reason we believe it is ultimately in SUSU’s favour to allow us to report on such issues.
Whilst we do not think the Wessex Scene should provide anything other than fair comment and reporting, we do believe we should have the right to evaluate the situation journalistically and come to the assumption that while Sam Ling appears to be a legitimate candidate, Derek Mallinson is clearly not.
The Union has also severely restricted the scope of some articles through it’s ‘Staff-Student protocol’, which stops students from commenting on the actions of paid members of staff, restricting members of the Wessex Scene from talking to any staff at the Union other than sabbatical officers, and leading many of our articles to sound rather like Union press releases.
Some student newspapers in other parts of the country have similar protocols – but with their University, not the Union. In a conversation with The Cambridge Students’ Editor, she expressed shock when told our Union was still doing this. A Union which is meant to work with, and support, the students they represent.
There have also been several other occasions where articles have been taken out of an issue by the Union before going to print and replaced.
We are well aware that the Union fund the Wessex Scene. However, almost every other student publication in the country is also funded by their Union, and although there are always issues surrounding this, they are still able to publish certain stories. It’s a simple case of being able to hold people to account, something which publications should be able to do.
The Union have a Sabb Pullout in every issue of the Wessex Scene; they have a Sabbs’ blog where they can communicate anything they want to students; they have a website to connect with students; they have a communications budget that can be used for posters, campaigns and adverts; they have two fresher magazines and a DVD as well as re-fresher material that goes out to every student at the start of each year. Yet we still feel that the Wessex Scene is being treated as SUSU’s mouthpiece, a communication tool to ‘reflect their values.’
Students are supposed to be at the centre of discussion, debate and innovation; we are meant to be the ones who lead the innovation, or at least push boundaries in ways that our older generations no longer can. So we find it very difficult today to understand why, as a members of the Wessex Scene Editorial Team, we are constantly working against the Union who it seems have prevented us from doing the above on numerous occasions.
Furthermore, applications for The Guardian Student Media Awards are currently open, and explicitly say they are looking to award their prestigious ‘Student Publication of the Year’ to ‘risk takers who stand out from the crowd.’ A few years ago, Surge News was short-listed for a Student Radio Award and when came they second were told on a feedback form that it was because they needed to take a few more risks and be bolder.
We understand that some students have quite strong opinions about the Wessex Scene, but surely our freedom of speech and right to expression is what is pivotal to this debate?
This letter has been written out of obligation to media independence here in Southampton, and to the students whom we effectively work for. As we are told so regularly, SUSU is “run by students for students.”
This letter is an open letter and therefore the Wessex Scene have decided that there is no need to offer the right to reply before publication, but welcomes any response which we are happy to publish online. Hopefully this article will remain online for some time…
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