SUSU to stifle the Wessex Scene

Posted on July 8, 2010 by

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The Dolphin’s Blowhole has been covering the news from Southampton University Student’s Union (SUSU) since our inception, and so far it has generated a fair few stories regarding some significant cock-ups.  The most recent of these is the controversy around the recent by-election for the post of VP Academic Affairs, which occurred following issues with the VP-elect regarding illness as well as money mismanagement in a previous post, and resulted in a subsequent lack of clarity from SUSU about the reasons for the by-election.  Indeed, SUSU originally suggested the by-election was just due to the VP-elect withdrawing due to medical reasons, when in fact the money issues were also a primary reason behind the resignation, as discovered and reported by the Student newspaper the Wessex Scene through its blog.

SUSU's very own Pravda...

But this article is not about that particular story, indeed one can find all the gory details at the original post at the Wessex Blog, but about the reaction of SUSU and the Wessex Scene amongst this and other cock-ups.  Following the original article, a large debate has ensued over the relative position of the Scene and SUSU, with various representatives arguing that the Scene has criticised SUSU too much this year and not reported their successes enough.  Indeed, Will Harvey (former AU Officer) wrote a long letter to the Scene making this point, and also accusing the Scene of contributing to the student apathy regarding Union politics.  Despite framing his argument with tributes to their work this year, the following makes his, and that of SUSU at large, position clear:

I would unfortunately like to remind you at this point that you are still part of the Union… If you worked for a commercially run paper and launched scathing attacks on the organisation that funded you, unfortunately there would be no job to come back to. – Will Harvey

The underlying message between the lines to the Scene is clear: If we could fire you for being too critical of us, we would (It’s also heartening to see the Union endorsing the way the national media operates, despite its implicit biases and defects – see medialens for more on this).  Despite also claiming that he feels that “the paper has an overwhelming right to publish stories which report both the disappointments upon the failings of the Union but also to celebrate the achievements”, suggesting some kind of appreciation of balance, the previous quote really does cut to the heart of it – SUSU doesn’t like being criticised, especially not by its own media.  It’s also clear that while the letter is only from him, from the comments left on the original article that sparked this debate that the Union’s executive as a whole is broadly in agreement.

Some writers for the Scene have hit back, saying that they publish most stories sent in and so any focus on criticism is a reflection on what they have received, and also pointing out the limited communication from SUSU of the successes they were meant to be reporting – indeed, the execs could have written material themselves or at least provided information for the Scene’s own writers.  They’ve also pointed out that they have reported on successes quite often too, but that big cock-ups (our words not theirs) are somewhat more interesting to readers than those successes (which as Harvey pointed out include such interesting topics as rewriting their constitution and funding acquisition – thrilling, we’re sure).  To be fair SUSU does do a good job in many areas and the execs often work very hard, but as one writer put it, “I think the Union needs to develop a thicker skin, to be completely honest.”

There’s also the point that The Blowhole would make, which is that there have been quite a few spectacular cock-ups this year, and unless the Scene enacted a policy of posting as many positive stories as critical ones one would struggle to see how a media outlet would report these without upsetting their masters.  For example, Harvey suggests that as well as reporting the chaotic AGM, they should have focused on how brilliant it was that there was this democratic opportunity in the first place – despite the fact that the Union’s execs own behaviour led to ordinary members’ motions not being heard and voted on by just the Union Council instead, thus making it rather less democratic than it should have been.  Hey, but at least they tried, right?!

But there’s also deeper issues running beneath this debate about the way in which SUSU is run.  From our discourse with various students involved in running societies and on the periphery of SUSU’s running it is clear that there is a degree of cliqueyness about the running of SUSU, with extended friendship circles providing most of the positions, filling the committees and running for elections.  The subject of the by-election illustrates this, as the former VP-elect who was close friends with many in the recent exec team is being defended as overall a good-egg by the SUSU execs and his punishment limited to an offer of resignation, despite the fact that a similar controversy in another job would have resulted in harsher punishments.  Another example is provided by Martin Underwood who was Postgraduate Officer, who after running and losing the race for President attempted to create a VP International & Postgrad Student position at the controversial AGM, and after failing at that then ran and again failed in the by-election for VP Academic Affairs.  He may well of done so out of loyalty to the Union and wanting to a good job, but when a close friend of the successful candidates and exec team repeatedly tries to get a sabb. position – paid relatively well too – it doesn’t reflect too well on SUSU’s inclusivity if the same narrow group of people repeatedly provide the candidates.  Indeed, election time is always quite amusing too to see this clique out in force, with the candidates and their teams all intermingling as they support each others mates in running for office.  Most get in as they’ve put themselves through multiple Union committees gaining the necessary experience on the way, leaving outsiders with little chance to get in based simply on their near-identical policies (24 hour Library! Fix the Cube! Course texts online! Quirky Catchphrase!).

Indeed, a small clique criticising its media outlet for not giving it enough positive attention doesn’t really reflect well on the Union at all, especially as their brief year-long office gives little other opportunity for performance to be judged and monitored other than via the Scene and other media.  But it is now clear that SUSU will get their wish, as the incoming editor and Wessex Blog manager have both said that they agree that the Scene has been too critical and will back off this year.  To be fair, they also reserve the right to publish critical articles, but it is feared that if they feel that these need to be balanced then they may be toned down or buried in positive articles to counteract them.  As some comments in this debate suggest, the Scene might head towards becoming more of a SUSU press-release regurgitator than news outlet if it’s not careful:

the Wessex Scene/Blog is not part of the press, it is a union department that emulates the working of a newspaper in order to act as a publicity outlet while giving interested students a chance to get media experience… WS gets an enormous budget, far more than other Societies and clubs, and they should respect the institution that helps them – or raise capital themselves and run independently.– both from the comments section of the original Money Mismanagement article

The moment we are told that the Wessex Scene cannot be a press organization and report freely (while impartiallly[sic]) is the moment when the paper dies. At this point, a multitude of replacement sites and papers would promptly get set up independent of the Union. It is an insult to buddying [sic] journalists to tell them they cannot report as a journalist would. – Chris Houghton, Blog Manager (with our emphasis added)

And that’s where we come in.  As a volunteer-run media outlet independent of the Union we don’t have to suck up to a boss further up, or please an organisation we’re part of by having to deliver as much good news or more as bad.  We’ll report the Union’s cock-ups as extensively as before – and to be fair, we’ll also write about good things too when they come up (if newsworthy of course, though).  But students can trust us not to be a press-release regurgitator.   We also promise not to regurgitate University or other press releases either, or rewrite Daily Echo articles for that matter, which we’ve seen plenty of on the Wessex Blog too.  Perhaps with our competition we can help convince the Scene through readership figures to resist being merely a media wing of SUSU, but if they don’t, then students know where to come to not have to sift through press-releases if they want their news to cut through the b***s***.

We’d also like to extend an offer to Scene/Blog writers:  If your articles are cut down or denied publishing for internal political reasons, then we’d like to hear from you and for you to submit them to us too.  Obviously they’ll have to be decent and fact-based, but we’d be happy to host your writing if SUSU stifles you too much.  Email us at thedolphinsblowhole@riseup.net of you’d like to talk about it.  (And if you’re not a writer for anyone but would like to give it a go, we’d be glad to see your writing submitted too!)

So, student reader, if you’re after news and media that isn’t stifled by an owner and is instead generated by your friendly local alternative media co-operative, then feel free to make The Blowhole your home.  And to SUSU: do what you will to the Scene, but we’ll take up the slack.

Snorky MacDolphin – The Dolphin’s Blowhole, Editor-in-Chief

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