On Tom Harwood, The Media, And The NUS

05/04/2017 17:08 BST | Updated 05/04/2017 17:08 BST
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In my blog for The Huffington Post after my election as the first NUS Trans Officer, I talked about my plans for the year ahead and how I was already bored of being asked about No Platform policies. That blog was written as I was fresh out of an interview with a large national newspaper, where the reporter had spent the entire interview attempting to get me to provide a comprehensive 'hit list' of transphobes who I was to No Platform. Perhaps naively, I was quite surprised given the reporter had told me via email that they wanted to hear about my plans for the year ahead, that the questions would keep returning like a broken record to a policy that's not mentioned in my manifesto.

Given this interrogation on the question of No Platform, I was worried that a hatchet job was being prepared for me. I had seen the impact that the media circus around No Platform had had on previous NUS officers, and I was scared. In the end, though, probably because I didn't say anything the reporter felt was incriminating, they didn't run the story. It was if they already had a story written before they talked to me: "NUS Trans Officer is out for your freedom of speech!". My talking about healthcare, housing, and justice for trans people didn't fit that narrative.

There is a pervasive anti-student bias in the media, as evidenced by frequent attacks on the student activists, the NUS and its officers. A bias that seeks to paint student activists as out-of-touch special snowflakes interested only in 'safe spaces' and curtailing freedom of speech. Piggy-backing on anti-intellectualism and ageism, this narrative is part of an insidious discourse that seeks to paint one of the few areas where the left is active and relevant as something irrelevant, immature and worthy of derision. It obfuscates the very material issues we are talking about; of who gets to access education and on what basis, by making it seem like a quasi-Stalinist movement seeking bans on words, bans on speakers, and bans on free-thinking.

Even LGBT+ media such as PinkNews were so resistant to celebrating the wins of trans students that they didn't run a story on the election of the NUS Trans Officer, the first role of its kind in Europe, but instead chose to feature a story criticising the Trans Campaign for resolving to campaign for a police free pride. Their story featured an extensive quote from NUS Presidential candidate Tom Harwood, who isn't trans, calling the Trans Conference policy 'damaging' and evidence that the NUS has been taken over by 'extreme fringe activists'. Thanks Tom, but the last time I considered myself to be an extreme fringe activist was in my Year 10 emo phase.

This got me thinking about Harwood's particular brand of media personality, where he certainly has been given a lot of bang for his buck. He managed to get on national TV for simply running as a delegate to the NUS national conference, which is something that thousands of students do across the country each year. It wouldn't be seen as particularly newsworthy if he wasn't running on a platform of criticising the NUS for being a left wing, campaigning organisation. Nor should the fact that the NUS is a campaigning organisation be considered news - it is a union, that's what unions are for.

This ability to be heard in the national media has signal boosted Harwood's views on the NUS way beyond the reach of the average student, and has given him a sense of legitimacy in those views. This has been followed through in his campaign for NUS President, his campaign material is littered with words like "credibility" and "legitimacy". The problem with claims to be credible is that credibility is always provisional on you towing whatever party line the dominant discourse sets. When the dominant discourse is so keen on de-legitimising student activism, a discourse that Harwood has strengthened by leaning into, he is going to have a hard time getting any positive news about students out there if he is elected.

In my time in student politics I have seen hundreds of right-leaning student journalists and politicos like Harwood build a profile on ripping into other student's work without doing any of their own. Its simply so much easier being heard in the media when your voice is a convenient mouthpiece for the anti-student and anti-NUS bias in the media. Whether Tom can actually do the work of student organising, rather than simply criticising other peoples work, remains to be seen. Although it is unlikely given that he has managed to alienate many of his future colleagues by attacking their work in the process of building his own profile.

The NUS needs a President who doesn't conform to and reinforce negative media narratives about students, but one who creates their own narrative through building a movement which can challenge the very discourses that seek to de-legitimise our organising. The NUS doesn't need a credible President, it needs an incredible one. And I'm sorry Tom, that President is not you.