The existence of student media has been threatened before - it can’t happen again

In 2011, a motion was put forward to UCDSU Council to remove Article 16 of the UCD Constitution, which guarantees the running, production and funding, of the University Observer and Belfield FM within the university. The subsequent referendum risked the existence of these media outlets on campus.

Given the current flourishing of both the paper and radio on campus today, this referendum clearly did not pass.

However, this outcome was not guaranteed. The University Observer had to first campaign for its right to exist, by proving that it was editorially independent from what was both its source of funding, and naturally the topic of the majority of its news content, the SU. Claims to discredit it came from both the SU itself and the student body, these flames stoked by articles in the College Tribune.

University Times, Trinity College’s counterpart to a union-funded news source, finds itself under the same circumstances - needing to justify its funding in order to continue operating on campus. This time, students are unhappy with the actions of the editor to uncover circumstances surrounding a group of male students ‘hazing’ students in initiation practises. Hazing practises in the United States has lead to so many deaths there is a dedicated Wikipedia page. The decision to pursue this story was commendable.

A recording device was found outside the room where the hazing was happening, and University Times was subject to widespread criticism, a great deal of which came from its rival paper, Trinity News. The methods used by the University Times to obtain the information have been regarded as legally sound and constituting a matter of public interest, which the National Union of Journalists have supported, with Irish journalists expressing their concern that the referendum is a threat to press freedom. Following a petition, there will be a referendum to remove its funding in April.

Back in 2011, once the referendum date was set, the Observer sprung to work on crafting the argument for its own survival. In Issue XVII, rallying the input from several past editors and media experts, the paper outlined the reasons to value a funded news source on campus, and why a single outlet, such as the College Tribune, was not enough.

To remove funding would be to “significantly lessen the influence of student media on campus”, a consequence which would be “ultimately detrimental to the students’ best interests”. The “serious error of judgement” in proposing the referendum was, to take it lightly, “an attack on independent student media, an attack on free speech, and an attack on UCD itself.”

Most notable contributions to Issue XVII were open letters from the founders of the University Observer, comedian Dara O’Briain and, then Political Editor of the Sunday Business Post, Pat Leahy. The two wrote, encouraging the student body to not help the SU “kill off this paper.” The squabbles and scandals they had seen the newspaper through while at its helm, although dramatic at the time, “had never been deemed sufficient to close down the college paper.”

The Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalist thought the referendum was a “blow to media diversity.” Former Education Editor of the Irish Times, Sean Flynn said “student media is sometimes taken for granted and [students] accept that it’s there. People need to realise what a useful resource student newspapers are.”

The University Observer had at that point, reported on students getting ripped-off by a well-known accommodation agency, and uncovered the story of a lecturer who had forged their work credentials. The paper existed (and still exists) to be written by students, for the benefit of students: to call attention to the multitude of problems and injustices imposed on students; by the university itself, by lecturers, administration, societies or each other. Without the paper, issues that would be overlooked by national media, from missteps of society auditors to mistimetabling of exams, would go unreported. This is at an estimated average cost of 16.7c per student per issue.

Much like the case in 2011, the call to referendum on the funding of a student paper, which would lead to the end of its publication, is an attempt to silence the truth by those who feel threatened by it, or simply do not like it. Indeed, some of the loudest voices have come from a disquieting source, Trinity News, who in their indictment of UTs press freedom and their call for the editor of UT to resign, do not make the case that they are deserving of these either. Trinity News is thriving even without access to the same funding as UT, and deserves the same opportunities, but it will not earn them if it discredits their shared raison d’etre so comfortably.

Two funded papers means further opportunities for students from all backgrounds to participate as Editor or Deputy Editor, not just those with the financial privilege to work unpaid for a year. While at the moment there is only one, to have zero is to be in a far worse position.

The precedent that the response to disliking a story or its methods should be to shut the source down, is not one that holds the favour to any form of media.

This article was updated on 31/03/2019