It was Guild election week at the University of Exeter this week. For many of us, this simply means a week of avoiding overly enthusiastic candidates dressed up in Onesies on campus. However, Guild election week remains an important fixture for student politics, as Sabbatical officers are elected to represent the student body for the coming academic year. Unfortunately, during the debates, some worryingly dangerous ideas about student media's independence were aired, which I feel need refuting.
On the Tuesday night of election week, I was in attendance at the Vice President for Activities debate. The role of VP Activities is to lead on societies, volunteering, fundraising, media and employability. A question was posed to the candidates on where they stood on the importance of independent student media, following on from an issue of Exeposé, The University newspaper, being delayed after a story on the expenses of University staff was published. Thankfully, the majority of the candidates responded strongly, arguing that student media ought to be independent of the Guild, and not leant on by the University when it publishes stories that are not necessarily in its interests.
However, the view of one candidate, who shall remain nameless, shocked me. His claim was that the role of student media was to portray the university in the best way possible. Even more worryingly, a tweet which proposed that as the Guild fund Exeposé, they ought to have a say in deciding its content, received numerous retweets and favourites by students and other candidates running for other Sabbatical positions.
The view that the role of student media is to be a mouthpiece for the University and its Student Guild could not be more misplaced. The idea that the function of an independent media outlet reporting on affairs that are in the interests of the student body, is to simply spout university propaganda is sickening and wrong. Student publications such as Exeposé and broadcasters such as XpressionFM and XTV have a duty to report on and investigate matters of student interest. If the Guild or University are acting in a manner which might jeopardise or otherwise reduce student wellbeing, then it is the role of student media to bring that to the attention of the university population. Just as it is the role of national media to hold politicians and public figures to account, the role of student media is to hold representatives of the university to account.
It appears as though a number of students at the university, particularly those with close ties to the Guild, don't want to hear about anything their beloved representatives are doing, even if it may be compromising their wellbeing. Instead, they would apparently rather hear about how great the university and its Guild are, even if this couldn't be further from the truth. Highlighting negative aspects about university life can help bring about positive change, and that is something we should all strive for.
With the topic of freedom of speech high on the political agenda following the tragic events of the Paris shootings at satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, it is more important than ever that young people in our society understand the importance of and promote independent student media. It worries me that individuals studying at a Russell Group institution, and those vying to be our student representatives in the Guild next year seem to have failed to grasp the basic concept of a free and independent press.
By all means, student media shouldn't be looking to deliberately and fraudulently drag the name of its institution through the mud, but when issues such as banned sports team initiations and excessive staff expenses are discovered, students have a right to know. It doesn't always make for the most pleasant reading, but it is a genuine issue of student interest and must be reported on freely and without interference, and not quashed by either the Guild or university.