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.