Comment

Newspapers with Page 3 pulled from campus shops after undemocratic SU stitch-up

Last night (11th March) the University of Nottingham Students’ Union censored Britain’s most-read newspaper after a panel voted by 15 to 3 to remove The Sun, and the Daily Star, from campus shops with immediate effect.

In the process of doing so, it put on full display the very worst side of student politics: undemocratic, unrepresentative, unaccountable, insular, and cliquey.

It put on full display the very worst side of student politics.

There is absolutely no point in criticising the SU without good reason, as is often fashionable on campuses up and down the country. They facilitate countless unique opportunities for students and are generally governed by executives with honest, well-meaning intentions. But when they step out of line they need to be accountable and open to criticism. Tuesday’s SU Council is one such case.

Having discussed a number of labourious – some might say irrelevant – motions, proceedings moved on to the crux of the evening: the proposal to remove newspapers featuring Page 3 from the SU shop. In support of the motion, campaigners from UoN Feminists gave eloquent and passionate speeches. But what followed can be described as no more than a good twenty minutes of one-sided backslapping.

An enthusiastic round of applause followed the introduction. Mike Dore, Equal Opportunities and Welfare officer, pledged his full support: “There are plenty of things we don’t sell in the SU shop, why does The Sun need to be one of them?”.

Jack Salter, LGBT officer, informed us of his network’s clear view that womanhood should not be “represented by what is under your underwear”. SU President Ellie McWilliam “wholeheartedly” offered her backing. One speaker, akin to a cut-throat accountant, suggested that of the ten issues of The Sun stocked daily, only four are sold. Another offered the suggestion that the SU should look at removing a whole range of publications in addition to those featuring Page 3.

As the evening progressed it became clear that the decision made at this low-key event would be an ultimate one.

But what about the other side of the opinion divide? As the evening progressed it became clear that the decision made at this low-key event would be an ultimate one, and that the so-called ‘discussion’ would amount to no more than an unquestioning rubber stamp.

As such, I felt obliged to contribute two points. First, that any decision-making process as one-sided as this should raise cause for concern. Second, that little evidence had been presented that the clear consensus in the room reflected that of wider student opinion.

The response was inhospitable. Odd, considering the default political mood during previous motions had been one of compassion. Last week UoN launched its ‘Dignity’ policy, which proclaims that “valuing and respecting difference is an essential part of a vibrant, inquiring and successful University”. But this commitment seemingly evaporated when one dared to question the prevailing narrative of comfy SU opinion.

The so-called ‘discussion’ would amount to no more than an unquestioning rubber stamp.

Hands shot up. Stern eyes concentrated. Matt Styles, former Education Officer, offered a meaningless comparison to a smoothie vendor deciding not to stock a certain flavour drink: cue patronising giggles from those in pretence of false moral superiority. Need I point out, surely a students’ union representing 33,000 members ought to hold itself to a different standard than a private business owner who is only accountable to his/herself? And referring to whether anybody had consulted students who opposed the motion, a campaigner deadpanned in my direction: “You’re the only one”.

Which is, of course, simply factually incorrect. Alfie Cranmer, one of the three SU councillors to vote against the motion, spoke out afterwards: “I was part of this council and can safely say it was one of the most undemocratic procedures I’ve ever seen. The feminists were insisting they did not want an entire student referendum as it would simply ‘fall through’. They knew this was their only chance”.

It is unfortunate that Mr Cramner did not make more of a case during the meeting, but nobody could be blamed for finding the thought of challenging the overwhelming tide of inner circle SU opinion an intimidating prospect.

The thought of challenging the overwhelming tide of inner circle SU opinion [is] an intimidating prospect.

Where students at similar Russell Group universities have been given to chance to express their judgements fairly and without the influence of peer pressure, No More Page 3 proposals have been decisively rejected. At York, of the 1331 students voting in a referendum, 992 (76%) voted against a ban. Similarly at Exeter, 2441 students took part, of which 1504 (62%) rejected the removal of newspapers.

Are we really to believe that students at York and Exeter are fundamentally different to those at Nottingham? Of course not.

Referenda are costly, time-consuming, and many students would no doubt think of one on this issue as a wasteful irrelevance. But at least they allow broad, representative student opinion to be aired. As such, if a representative body such as SU Council is to fill this vacuum it at least has to consider the views of its electorate.

That means canvassing the opinions of all different kinds of student – not just those in the Womens’ and LGBT network, but Rugby players, Tab journos and Real Ale drinkers as well. No doubt they would have come across many students who dislike like the SU pontificating what they can and cannot read, and who find the link between a newspaper which apparently sells four copies a day on campus and ‘rape culture’ a tentative one.

Not one of our executive officers stood on a manifesto pledging to remove newspapers in the SU shop with Page 3. The £18,000 salaried sabbaticals should therefore be reminded that they are there to represent students, not to impose their moralising vision upon us – particularly when there is no mandate for it.

Students dislike like the SU pontificating what they can and cannot read

The truth is that restricting students’ freedoms and capacities to make decisions for themselves is what now constitutes Union’s being seen as ‘doing something’; this decision was made at a meeting which almost no-one knew was happening; and it consisted overwhelmingly of a orchestrated vocal and active niche whose views differ significantly from that of the ordinary student.

During the motion our SU president tweeted ‘#democracyatwork’, yet it turned out to be anything but. Refer instead to a message I received shortly after the vote from a (white, male, mid-sized) friend: “If that Page 3 vote was democratic, I’m a six foot black woman”.

Crass, yes, but the sentiment entirely correct.

Robert Smith

@robertdgsmith

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37 Comments on this post.
  • Eb Mack
    12 March 2014 at 18:36
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    While I enjoy seeing The Sun slammed for what it is – a crass, biased publication that inaccurately represents most of what it covers and idolises female nudity to a point of excess – I completely agree with your point on SU democracy. It’s one thing to condemn the paper for what it is, and another to take the choice of purchasing it out of students’ hands without a proper consultation.

    If this was The Guardian or the The Times that the SU was removing, then people would be up in arms about it, and rightly so. Perhaps the SU shouldn’t be stocking a publication that makes some of its members feel uncomfortable – or for council members who voted against the motion to feel like they were unable to air their views before the vote was taken. It also doesn’t justify verbal slights on objectors by University pressure groups during what should have been an open, frank discussion representing multiple viewpoints.

    The SU is there for its students. Perhaps it – and its various representative organs – should start consider engaging with its critics a bit more when it’s looking to censor the student body, before it starts provoking further disinterest in the decision making process that it provides.

  • Mike
    12 March 2014 at 18:39
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    Totalitarian feminist censorship

  • Dave J
    12 March 2014 at 18:53
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    Absolutely spot on Robert, and a very articulate article you’ve written here.

    The SU Council never was democratic when I was around, and it sounds like it’s exactly the same now as it was back then. As a body it is totally uninterested in democracy, fairness, or indeed the interests of students. That is how people could, without a hint of irony, suggest that a pitifully sized petition of 200 signatures would represent sufficient cause to ban a newspaper from campus.

    In the end, despite being a constitutional member as Ed-Chief of Impact, I just stopped going. In my handover pack, I advised my successor to do the same. It’s laudable, and important, that you spoke up. Speaking as a member of that club, you’re not the first who has idealistically argued on the grounds of liberalism and democracy, only to be spat out by the clique of special interests that dominates the council.

    I won’t be the only Nottingham alumnus who is depressed – but unsurprised – at such an illiberal, anti-democratic, and ultimately anti-student move at my alma mater. More than ever it is Impact’s role to reach and represent the interests of real students – a role that’s clearly being shirked by others.

    • Robert Smith
      12 March 2014 at 20:11
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      Thanks very much Dave. Spot on in return.

  • Ron
    12 March 2014 at 19:01
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    A completely accurate piece.

    This decision was not made with the considered interests of the whole Student body. This can not be achieved with a biased trial decided by a randomly selected jury of 18!

    UoN SU now seems to only operate in interest of it’s own OUTWARD facing image, rather than looking INWARD at the views of it’s Student’s. I’m sure someone decided a quick passing of this ban would make for some quick and easy PR; rather than a potential backlash to a referendum where it was rejected.

  • anon
    12 March 2014 at 19:32
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    The problem with SU politics is this: it isn’t a political body. It’s a Union. Yes we vote, but it’s not a democracy in the traditional sense. We don’t vote for anyone on their political or ideological alignment, they are voted for specifically University related topics. So the question is whether this is a Union decision (in which case, the council are entitled to make this calls) or a political decision?

    In this case it probably does come down as the latter. While I think the decision is correct, and many students are misinformed about feminism and are deluded by the representations of men and women (as a side note, I am male), not to mention the girls who lash back against feminism in a way to appear ‘edgy’, it is something that probably should have been put to a referendum.

    BUT a referendum on such a minuscule topic is a waste. Everyone getting caught up on this probably doesn’t read the Sun, and never has. It’s most probably a matter of principle. However, I don’t think this move, being so minor in nature, deserves such a backlash. If it was something like ‘no more freshers week because it promotes lad culture’ or similar, then fair enough, there should definitely be a referendum.

    This is not about me thinking it’s a good idea, but instead about the fact it’s a pointless debate. A waste of time. An attempt to criticise the SU council on a trivial matter. If Men’s Health was banned because it uses photoshopped images of men, advice from steroid users, and generally promotes an unrealistic body image for males, then I would equally, still not give a shit.

    • Dave J
      12 March 2014 at 20:42
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      Can’t agree there – For one its supposed to be representative, because they’re voting on issues that affect everyone. Otherwise you just end up with people representing niche issues making all of the decisions because they hold the vast majority of the votes.

      Secondly, principle matters. I know that sounds corny, but I genuinely believe it. Particularly for students who are supposed to stand up for that sort of thing when cynical politicians etc. don’t.

      I don’t think it should have gone to a referendum either, incidentally. I think banning a newspaper is above the SU’s paygrade in the first place, and it sounds like they dealt with criticism in the usual way – closing ranks and shouting down anybody who sticks his head above the parapet. That’s not a pointless point to raise, I think.

    • BH
      12 March 2014 at 23:50
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      Right…. so if we gladly accept censorship because we don’t give a shit about what’s being censored that’s fine?

      So everything that the majority doesn’t agree with get’s banned?

      If we don’t act on principle, what do we act on? Necessity? What kind of democracy is that??

  • Meg
    12 March 2014 at 20:30
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    Perfect throughout – aside from your sign off.

    I’m an active member of the LGBT Network and whilst Jack may say that everyone in the network felt that way I know very few people who he bothered to ask. There was no discussion aside from the few people (Jack’s clique) who do both feminist soc AND lgbt.

    • Fig Barce
      13 March 2014 at 22:26
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      Jack wouldn’t have said that everyone in the Network felt that way – only that when he put out the call for input from the folks he represents (one of the few Officers to actually do that, as representatives are supposed to under the Council system), some of the netowrk got back to him and said what they felt. Maybe some people said they disagreed with taking Page 3 papers out of the shop? If they did he’d have passed that on as well, though it seems like the majority if not all responders voiced agreement with the motion. (Can’t say for definite since I wasn’t there)

      If you’re signed up to the LGBT Mailing list you’ll get Jack’s pre-Council surveys, which go out to all 300+ members, straight to your inbox so he knows how to represent you at Council 🙂

  • UON Graduate
    12 March 2014 at 20:43
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    I know it is a bit sad commenting on an Impact article when I’ve graduated but….

    Some of us did try and prevent a system where 18 unaccountable students vote on behalf of 34,000. This proved impossible given the reforms had the buy-in of permanent SU staff whose job it was going to be to implement said reforms!

    We did try and stop this but I had a degree to chase and when all is said and done a 2.1 is more important than student politics.

    • Disenchanted UG
      13 March 2014 at 00:18
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      Hi… I’d really love to know how this jury system got implemented and if you could elaborate that’d be greatly appreciated. There’s little record of how the employment of full-time, external staff to essentially police and control the Students’ Union came about.

      • UONSU History Lesson
        13 March 2014 at 02:05
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        In 2010 there was something called ‘The Big Review’ which was a survey of what people thought about aspects of the SU. It concluded amongst other things that the SU’s weaknesses were communications and democratic structures which was a pretty fair assessment at the time.

        This led to reform proposals put to the electorate in a referendum called ‘The Big Ask’ which called for new democratic structures and fewer officers. The referendum was not quorate (so not that big!) but pushed through anyway because having recruited a Comms department already we could hardly hand out loads of P45s.

        Reform was needed. The old Dem Comms Exec role was too big and much of it better performed by paid staff. Election turnout has increased and things run a bit smoother though this has been traded against student involvement.

        The ‘old’ SU Council was never quorate and kept blocking reform. Unfortunately the thing that has replaced it isn’t much better in that it is government by what is essentially an unaccountable and randomly selected focus group.

        Then as now students feel they are not being listening to. The more things change the more they stay the same?

      • Anil Parmar
        13 March 2014 at 09:59
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        It was implemented last year as the former process was much worse (where JCR presidents, Officers and SoE reps were the only ones who could vote). As a result, it was much more clichy and most decisions were made before council even started, although most of these meetings weren’t even quorate.

        This is definitely a much better system; the problem in this case seems to be the debate was completely one sided and those that disagreed with the motion were significantly outnumbered.

  • Murdoch
    12 March 2014 at 23:33
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  • Anonz
    13 March 2014 at 00:12
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    There were people on this ‘jury’ who were randomly selected. Not voted in. How is that a council that was democratically voted in?
    I admire the campaign but completely disagree with a) the idea of removing a 60 page paper because of the disagreement of one page and
    b) because there were 18 people who voted. I can prove beyond doubt they were not all voted in by the student body.

  • BHart
    13 March 2014 at 00:56
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    How do we go about bringing this undemocratic filth into disrepute? Does anyone know? Or is the process hidden beneath layers of jargon and paperwork designed to dissuade even the most incensed of Students from protesting?

    Probably the latter.

    However, if anyone does know or knows how to set up a “change.org” things, I’ll gladly sign.

  • Murdoch
    13 March 2014 at 09:08
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    The randomly selected student jury system was the brainchild of Luke Mitchell. Supposedly the intention was that common sense would prevail and the SU would no longer be beholden to cliques and careerists. However it seems that in this case the onesidedness of the testimony they were given by the “experts” from the Networks and Exec has misled them. I call a mistrial!

    • Dave J
      13 March 2014 at 14:10
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      I think the intention was also to help council make quorum, something which it failed to do over and over again when I was there because so many of the reps didn’t have the will to listen to the rep officers banging on. The favoured way of getting a motion through was to pass it with an inquorate vote in one council, and then have it rubber stamped in a following council without debate – the problem was that there were so few quorate councils that it started backing the system up.

  • Mathew
    13 March 2014 at 12:03
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    Meg, the current SU Democracy is awful, but Jack did everything he could to consult the LGBT network. If you felt like you weren’t represented, it’s probably because you didn’t write on here: http://uonsu-lgbt.weebly.com/union-council.html

    I did, and I am glad he spoke for the ban.

    Like he said:
    “…members should take the opportunity to have their say on motions when I post the consultations. I have expressed my concern to the Union about how late I was given the agenda again for last night’s Council, with the hope that this will be rectified next time.

  • SIGN UP!
    13 March 2014 at 12:11
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  • Anonymous
    13 March 2014 at 12:29
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  • Ella
    13 March 2014 at 12:47
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    “That means canvassing the opinions of all different kinds of student – not just those in the Womens’ and LGBT network, but Rugby players, Tab journos and Real Ale drinkers as well.”

    Sorry I couldn’t concentrate on your point here when all I could see was your gender-prescriptive subtext. You seem to be implying a very clear female/male divide between those who are members of women’s and LGBT networks and those who drink ale and write for the Tab. Would have been much more prepared to hear your side of the argument if it had been written without such insidious sexism (see also your quoting of the term ‘rape culture’).

    • Robert Smith
      13 March 2014 at 13:29
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      There’s no sexism here. LGBT is a network which includes men as much as it does women, and there are more females on the Tab editorial team than males (http://nottingham.tab.co.uk/the-team/).

      Ironically, it is your comment which tries to create a stereotypical gender divide. The point is that certain societies seem to have the ear of the SU more than others. Nothing to do with gender.

      • Dave J
        13 March 2014 at 14:06
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        Ella is projecting so hard she could point herself at a wall and do powerpoint presentations.

    • Alice
      14 March 2014 at 14:25
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      Why can’t women play rugby, write for The Tab and drink real ale? Very concerned about Ella’s sexism here.

      Some women aren’t part of LGBT or UoN Feminists, but would have like to have been consulted. While identifying myself as a feminist, the banning of newspapers seems like a slippery slope. By that logic, we should be banning Cosmopolitan and Heat by their objectification of men’s naked bodies.

      Feminism is about the opening of choices, not the closing of them. I despair not just at the motion itself but also how it came to be approved by the SU.

  • mike clifford
    14 March 2014 at 06:34
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    “undemocratic, unrepresentative, unaccountable, insular, and cliquey”? A vote of 15:3 in favour in line with the agreed procedure of the Student Union seems a lot more democratic, representative and accountable to me than one person spouting off a page of one-sided gender-prescriptive subtext.

  • mike clifford
    14 March 2014 at 06:46
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  • Also Anon
    14 March 2014 at 11:39
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    The reason for not taking it to a referendum is obvious – nobody votes. Or at least, not enough people. It would fall through as every referendum in the university for a long time has done. Not enough people are voting in the SU elections, never mind a referendum on something that many people feel doesn’t affect them either way. Your arguments for a referendum are nonsensical, demonstrating that you must be one of two things: either lacking in basic understanding of the university’s democratic processes or in fact highly misogynistic disguising it as “democratic” because you know that it would fail and this is your only way to come out of it looking reasonable.

    What you’re seemingly failing to understand is that the council is made up of a random selection of students in order to represent the entire body. It is not made up of a panel of feminists, it is not made up of people chosen because of their views on the matter, it is not even made up of the SU officers who we the student body have chosen to represent us.

    UoN Feminists did not hide the fact that they were campaigning for this, nor did they meet in secret to discuss ways of keeping it hidden so people could not speak up about it. They followed all correct procedures and advertised each step as they did it. If anybody was that passionate about it, they should have come forward and made their point.

    It is true that some people are upset and distressed by page 3. Regardless of majority, we shouldn’t allow anybody to be distressed over something that no students are buying anyway. For you to priorities your so called “censorship” (which we know is completely off topic) over somebody else’s happiness and well being is selfish beyond believe.

    • I’LL BE ANON ASWELL THEN I GUESS!!!
      19 March 2014 at 15:10
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      Whilst I think it’s fair to say many students are unaware of the democratic procedures of the University I think in a matter which was always bound to be contentious the SU should’ve been proactive in advertising this particular Council.

      I received 5+ emails telling me to vote in the Student “Leader” Elections but received none for the Council.

      The fact they were begging for people to vote so they could get the record was pretty pathetic.

      And your last point is just crap pal. I’m not happy about people smoking near me outside Hallward…can we ban that? It makes me unhappy and is bad for my wellbeing 🙁

  • Michael
    15 March 2014 at 20:23
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    Very good article.

  • Grace
    15 March 2014 at 23:53
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    Firstly, the quorum on referenda is too high. I think it came up at SU Council last year and the bid to get it moved lower was thrown out – but regardless, this needs looking at again, then the members of the council will feel they can actually declare a referendum when it’s appropriate rather than when they think people might actually vote.

    Secondly, the women (and men) that you heard in favour of these motions were the ones who wanted to make lots of noise about an issue they are passionate about. The rest of us are likely to be far more happy sat on the fence, or swayed in a direction; but we’re not likely to have paraded about in T-shirts to stop the motion passing. Whilst the idea of my boyfriend reading page 3 has my attention, if some complete stranger wants to indulge, I really don’t care. I think it’s very obvious that out of the tens of thousands of students, the fact that a few members of a Society or a group kick up a fuss about something shouldn’t detract from the thought that, in the light that this is a controversial issue, a whole larger body of men and women alike will ‘marginally’ oppose the motion – but not enough to act. There would have been outrage if there was an organised group against the motion. The SU needs to prove that it is really representing the majority, and not just appeasing the groups that make the most noise.

    Some women aren’t part of LGBT or UoN Feminists, but would have like to have been consulted. While identifying myself as a feminist, the banning of newspapers seems like a slippery slope. By that logic, we should be banning Cosmopolitan and Heat by their objectification of men’s naked bodies.

    Feminism is about the opening of choices, not the closing of them. I despair not just at the motion itself but also how it came to be approved by the SU.

  • Grace
    15 March 2014 at 23:54
    Leave a Reply

    Last comment meant as a reply to comment above! But reads fine as it is.

  • Dave J
    16 March 2014 at 10:46
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    And thinking that it’s acceptable to ban something because it’s not very popular is seriously frightening. Majority or minority, the bar should be set pretty damn high before you start banning stuff – rather like burning books, banning newspapers has some serious connotations for a lot of people.

    You can’t have it both ways – either no people are buying it, or it’s endorsing a ‘rape culture’ on campus. The two arguments are mutually incompatible, but the fact that nobody seemed to have said this in Council suggests that there’s been a failure of process, intellect, or both.

    Anon, do you have enough humanity to accept that “We can ban it because not many people read it anyway” is not an acceptable argument in a liberal society? Freedom is not a popularity contest. The irony, of course, is that the success of many liberation/diversity movements in the last century has come on the back of increased liberalism and tolerance in our press and collective societal mindset. Just because you’re now doing the banning doesn’t mean you can do what you like. Of all groups, surely UoN Feminists and LGBT should have been conscious of that. See Russia’s record on banning ‘LGBT propaganda’ for details.

    If the people behind this motion are our nation’s future political class/political campaigners, thinking that democracy just means voting rather than liberalism, and that a publication’s popularity is an indicator of its right to exist, you can’t help but think that we’re all fucked.

  • A No More Page 3 Campaigner
    17 March 2014 at 13:17
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    Firstly, the BOYCOTT of The Sun and The Daily Star is part of a national No More Page 3 campaign which aims to pressure David Dinsmore to remove pictures of topless women from his paper.

    Nottingham SU is joining 28 other Students’ Unions who want to help the national campaign in their effort.

    This isn’t a BAN, the papers will be reinstated after the images have been removed.

    Secondly, for those who are interested about how we passed the No More Page 3 motion last Tuesday, here are the minutes from SU Council 11/03/2014.

    The No More Page 3 motion is the final item to be discussed:

    http://www.su.nottingham.ac.uk/make-the-change/democracy/unioncouncil/

    People seem to have forgotten that this is an OPINION piece, see minutes for what actually went on.

    • Anon
      22 March 2014 at 18:34
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      Yes, in the minutes, the proposition of a referendum and concerns regarding the size of the jury were brought up multiple times. In the minutes, I see no notion of a reply beyond a statement that the result would be general apathy (which raises the question of just how effective our Students’ Union is in gaining opinions – perhaps a better strategy could be implemented). The issue of censorship was among the final items to be brought up, and there is no response, not even a flawed one, to this fairly major concern. What is the response of the No More Page Three Campaigner, since the minutes seem to lack one?

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