The unwanted gift of the gag

Former editor of Nouse Toby Green revisits the vexed topic of YUSU’s muddled media charter

In June 2004, three University of York students attacked fellow student James Pullen in Vanbrugh Bar during the campus music festival Woodstock. Only a couple of months before, a University of York Students’ Union officer had bottled another student in Ziggy’s and was sentenced to nine months in prison. These two cases precipitated a reaction from the Students’ Union that has been at the root of a souring of relations between the Union and the student newspapers: the Media Charter.

In the three years since both papers have referred to ‘censorship’ from the Union whilst reporting on specific cases, there has been no in-depth public examination of whether, as my predecessor Toby Hall warned, “the nebulous defence of ‘student welfare’ allowed back door censorship of the media”.

The Charter itself addresses numerous clauses between the paper and the Union, many of which are required and mutually accepted by both parties. For example, since the Union have total legal responsibility for anything printed by Nouse and Vision, it is only right that they should check through any content that could be contentious. It is the welfare aspect over which the battle is fought. It states that the Union can prevent an article being published if it puts a student “at specific social, academic, physical or mental risk, as identified by the Academic and Welfare Officer”.

If campus media are to hold the University and Union to account, the media charter needs to be rethought.

This aspect of the charter is constantly implemented on the premise that an individual student’s welfare is more important to protect than that of the student body as a whole. In the cases of the attacks at Woodstock and Ziggy’s, the Union decided the whole of the University population did not deserve to know the identity of potentially dangerous students, even once they had been convicted by the British legal system. That the students were named in the York Press, a paper that is sold by the Union in Your:Shop, was merely another nonsensical aspect of an ill-thought out and damaging piece of legislation.

At the time, there were understandable theories that the Union had rushed through the charter to protect one of their own and in fact couldn’t care less for the greater population. These suspicions still remain, and with good reason. Despite both Nouse and Vision pleading for more time to ascertain their full legal rights, the Charter was forced through and signed within only a few hours of the first group discussion.

Whether or not you believe James Alexander’s assurance that there were no ulterior motives for the charter, it clearly allows such a case to occur since all it would take was either an Academic and Welfare Officer to be personally involved or to be easily persuaded by another member of the Union.

Since the Media Charter was brought in, there have been no such straightforward cases of the welfare clause being exploited, yet (speaking from my own personal experience) stories involving the Students’ Union have received more attention that any other stories, both from a legal and a welfare point of view.

The decision on what information is in the public interest is also contentious, and one on which members of the Union are not necessarily the best judges. An example of this is Vision’s attempts to print full details of how security lapses in Derwent have left students extremely vulnerable.

Yet students were denied the full knowledge of the inability of campus managers to deal with the problem due to worries that the article would leave the rooms more vulnerable. Vision’s duty is to expose these problems, not to deal with them. From that point on it is the University’s responsibility to make sure the issue is dealt with, yet without students holding full knowledge of the incidents there will be no pressure from the student body. As Vision correctly stated, if the full details were printed, you could be sure that the University’s reaction would have been a lot quicker than the seven months they have so far taken.

It is clear that if campus media’s proud tradition of holding to account the University, the Union and anyone who is a responsible body for the students is to continue, then the charter needs to be finally and thoroughly rethought. As much as the current Union may protest that they would only hinder the freedom of campus press over serious issues, the vaguely termed nature of the charter and its inherent failings means that they must change it to guard against any future dangers. Only then can the Union and campus media regain trust and mutual professional respect.

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