Friday, 26 February 2010

Student Churnalism

This week I had an article printed in the comment section of The Cambridge Student (TCS). I was writing about the importance of a left-wing challenge to the three main parties at the next election, and in so doing, mentioning Martin Booth’s Socialist candidacy in Cambridge.

Put frankly, my article was butchered by the editors. I can live with this. I’m used to articles being changed, cut down, or rejected outright. What I want to focus on is the political nature of the editors’ decision. What they did was take out not only my endorsement of a candidate, but even any mention of Martin’s candidacy and the existence of TUSC nationally. The reason they gave was that, as a neutral newspaper, they couldn’t print any article that endorsed a particular candidate. This is clearly rubbish. No readers will equate one article, by one writer, in one issue, with the endorsement of the whole paper.

In the student press, as in the grown-ups’ media, the main parties get free coverage all year. In fact, one of the first things TCS printed this academic year war a full page given to Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative representatives to explain what their parties would do for students this year. No other, much more active political groups on campus were given the same opportunity. Fine, that’s the editors’ prerogative of course. No-one would argue that it amounts to an “endorsement” of the main parties. But neither is it neutral or impartial.

Student newspapers can be playgrounds for aspiring journalists who write in the same style, about the same issues, and with the same tired arguments that we read in the comment and opinion sections of national newspapers. One blogger for the online version of Varsity, Cambridge’s independent student paper, has illustrated this point well in a couple of recent articles. Firstly, during the recent referendum on NUS affiliation, he likened the leaders of the “No” campaign, who were opposing the NUS from a fairly left-wing standpoint, to early-90s Tories Norman Tebbit and Roger Knapman. This is either deliberately misleading, or a desperately poor analogy, presumably designed to show off the author’s knowledge of big-boy politics. Either way, it’s bad journalism. Secondly, in an otherwise interesting article, he described James Purnell, who recently announced that he would be standing down from Parliament, as “one of the foremost thinkers of the centre-left.” The tired media cliché about Purnell’s supposedly towering intellect can be debunked by a quick glance at this confused and pointless article he wrote for the Guardian. As for “centre-left,” ask anyone who has been affected by his Thatcherite welfare reforms.

I don’t expect student journalists to be particularly good at writing, still less have time to produce earth-shattering investigative pieces. Everyone is learning, of course. But surely showing some imagination, and not producing pale reflections of something I can read in any issue of the Guardian, could stop us all unwittingly getting on the train to Hacksville.

TCS has a self-selecting editorship. In contrast, many other student union papers have their editors elected by the student body. This is a better system, but the idea that student papers must be neutral permeates here too. The Facebook group for one of the candidates running for editor of The London Student wants the paper to be “impartial at its core” but “support student campaigns.” A neutral paper which supports certain campaigns? First one to square that circle wins a prize.

Student papers could choose to be weapons in the fights students wage in their own interests, against their university managements and against the government. They could choose to seek out the less-known views and stories. They could choose to take student politics on its own terms rather than treating it like Westminster-lite. Activist journalism doesn’t mean distorting or ignoring facts. It just means using them for something more worthwhile than a nice liberal academic chat about the nature of representation or what John Stuart Mill said about something-or-other.

To be honest though, I’m not holding my breath.

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