Southampton University Student Union slammed by editors of the Wessex Scene over censorship

Posted on May 23, 2011 by

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The editors of the Wessex Scene, Southampton University’s student newspaper have slammed Southampton University Student Union (SUSU) for censoring the paper in an open letter published on their website.

Dan Webb and Jessica Fuhl, the Editor and News Editor of the Scene, published the scathing article on Monday afternoon, and claim that SUSU have repeatedly stifled and censored the paper on a number of occasions.

Features such as surveys on drugs, a slightly more provocative than normal front cover (and we mean slightly), a cartoon and stories which were slightly more daring (and therefore interesting) than normal have all been pulled in the past year mainly to prevent perceived offence and unlikely lawsuits (including concerns that an entire Asian country may sue the Union), it is claimed.

Jessica Fuhl has written on her blog that, when attempting to draft a special on ‘student vices’ on the same lines as the acclaimed sex issue last year, “the Union feel that a lot of the content ‘does not fit with the ethos’ of the Union and may compromise advertisement deals the Union has with external companies. Consequently the Union won’t produce a survey, like the sex survey published last year, and has asked the Wessex Scene to present all their ideas for the issue to them, to see if they are suitable as they are ‘worried’ about the content… the survey [on student vices] ‘is of no use to the Union’ We at The Blowhole are particularly intrigued by the advertising aspect here, as this follows the analysis of mainstream media and corporate influence described by media watchdog medialens.

Problems with reporting on SUSU staff members due to the zealous application of the policy of protecting staff’s details are also raised, which probably partially refers to the alleged conflicts of interest of the General Manager and the Democracy and Representation Manager during the NUS referendum (as claimed by former Sabbs and Staff of SUSU as well as whistleblowers as detailed in our original article on this).

The Blowhole has received a number of tip-offs from those close to the paper in the past year about the growing tide of censorship, with one tip-off telling of how a photo of the packed bunfight was pulled from an article on over-crowding at the university as it might have upset the organisers of the bunfight (despite over-crowding not being their fault), and another whistleblower writing earlier in the year that “the new VP Comms [Charlotte Woods] being an ex editor of the scene has being holding a tight reign on the scene. And there are grumbles that the scene is being forced to only print positive stories particularly regarding the venue [the Cube]”.

We haven’t published these claims prior to now as they would have been passed off as gossip; but now with several leading figures coming out likewise it is clear these claims have weight and that all is not well at the Wessex Scene.

We’re resisting the temptation to say “we told you so”, having written a critique on the stifling of the Wessex Scene this time last year in response to a debate within SUSU which ended with a vague agreement that the Scene should be less critical of the Union in future. We argued against this at the time, and promised to remain an unaffiliated alternative willing to dig the dirt and stand-up against authoritarians.

The current editor Dan Webb agreed at the time with this tamer direction saying the paper would attack SUSU less this year, but appears to have had a change of heart. The position of the incoming Editor and editorial team for next year is currently unclear, although the winning candidate for VP Comms for the coming year Joe McLo promised in his manifesto to keep the Scene independent.  SUSU has yet to comment on the issue publicly.

Here at the Blowhole we believe that media should be free and unfettered, and so the growing stifling of the Wessex Scene is an unwelcome (although expected) development. If the incoming Union Sabbatical and Editorial team feel likewise then they should act to restore and ensure independent reporting this coming year. This could be done by establishing an arms-length relationship enshrined in the constitution so as to prevent future less-independence minded Sabbaticals from stifling the Scene, or by establishing the Scene as a far more separate entity (like many other student newspapers where more than one operate and the Union holds little editorial influence).

Will the Wessex Scene get its bark back next year, or will it continue its decline into the Union’s PR free-sheet?  Next year’s Editors and Union Sabbaticals will have to choose.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to bring you independent and alternative news and media from the grassroots.  We also re-extend our invitation to all student journalists (and citizen journalists of all trades for that matter) to join our team and help make The Blowhole Southampton’s premier alternative news and media source.

Snorky MacDolphin The Blowhole’s Editor-in-Chief

(P.s. feel free to use #susufail and #freethescene on twitter for this issue and get SUSU squirming)

Update:

Dan Webb, current Editor of the Wessex Scene, has published this further explanation of the events this year between him and the VP Comms over the issue, and the questionable procedures used to bat the issue away:

As the year passed it started to become clear that it was in no way, a two-way relationship and the decisions made were not open for discussion or evaluation – it was final. We were planning to bring a motion to council around two councils ago but unfortunately were unable to do so in the allotted time.

I did however write a concerned letter to the Editor-in-Chief explaining my position on the issues in front of us around 1 month ago. The response I received included members of Senior Management, Union Staff and the Union President; it point by point rubbished everything I had said in a dismissive nature that felt more like a telling off than anything cooperative.

Following that I asked the Editor-in-Chief how to challenge a decision she had made – I was told to recall her at Union Council and that there was no other way. Maybe if I had been to UC I’d of known of the options Sasha has offered. Naturally, I did not want to recall anyone, as it is not an issue for me with the editor-in-chief on a personal level, and as a whole I think she does a brilliant job. And now we are where we are today…

Update 2:


Here is Billy FitzJohn’s, the SUSU President, response to the claims made in the WS article:

After reading the article on the Wessex Scene and the comments that have followed it, I see that Dan Webb (Wessex Scene Editor) is planning to bring a proposal to the next Union Council.  That is the place for me to respond to any questions on the issues that have been raised.  Also, any member of the Union is able to visit me at any time: I would be happy to have a conversation with any student, including you (assuming you are one) about the issue in person.

We’ll keep an eye on proceedings at the next UC and post his full response then.

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