Disclaimer: This article reflected the strongly held views of the 2015 editors as a result of the Novermber Student Council meeting, in which potentially harmful regulations were proposed and subsequently tabled. Any events that happen(ed) after December 1st 2015 are out of the control of the authors of this piece. We hope the proposed changes do not proceed and call upon all those involved in student media to continue this fight at all publications around Australia.
ET’s bright future has been put on hold as Student Council (SC) voted to table proposed controversial changes to Empire Times regulations in the last SC meeting of 2015. Led by incoming Education Officer, Jack Harrison, the changes reflect a shift in power and censorship of a historically independent student magazine.
In early November, during the final Student Council meeting of 2015, alarming and potentially harmful changes regarding Empire Times, the Flinders University Student Magazine, were proposed. The changes reflected a desire to increase the Student Council Executive’s involvement in Empire Times and have the potential to halt production of a 42 year long independent student publication. Jack Harrison, Ordinary Council Member and NUS Conference Delegate, proposed these changes after initial discussions with incoming President Caleb Pattinson. Jack ran and won his 2016 position in Student Council as Education Officer under Activate’s political ticket. He will make up part of the Executive, as well as Activate’s Caleb Pattinson (President) and Genevieve Danenberg (General Secretary). As such, if these members were to choose to vote on bloc, this would mean Activate would have the potential to pass any and all detrimental regulation changes.
The proposed regulation changes dictate that the Executive Committee see all pre-press editions of the magazine (i.e. before they go to print) and have the right to withdraw any articles or stop the printing of any edition altogether without explanation. While it is proposed that regulations will protect unfair alteration and censorship, we are not as confident. These changes would allow for censorship and strip Empire Times of its editorial independence. Empire Times has a responsibility to report news and information to students and changes such as these would limit its ability to do so, particularly when ET and the Council hold opposing views. If ET wanted to publish an article about SC that exposed a member for doing something unprofessional or outside of student interests, how would that article get to print when SC have veto rights? It would be in their vested interest not to approve such an article as it may reflect badly on the Student Council in its entirety or themselves specifically. Empire Times should be able to hold people accountable—Student Council members should not be an exception to this. Those outside of the media should not be given power over the magazine in this way and having the SC as an unnecessary and biased middle man goes against the nature and ethics of Empire Times. It is also worth noting here that both the 2016 Executive Committee members and incoming Empire Times Editorial Team ran under the Activate political ticket in the most recent elections.
As it currently stands, the regulations read that only the Manager of Student Engagement (Chris O’Grady’s) nominee, FUSA Media Officer (Stephanie Walker) read through pre-press editions and can only prevent publication due to legal reasons. This currently ensures editorial independence and editorial discretion when deciding which articles to withdraw or reject. As someone who has a comprehensive understanding of media law and policy as well as significant experience in student media, it stands to reason that the Media Officer be the person in charge and responsible for reading through each edition and flagging legal issues. It is highly unlikely for members of the Executive to be able to make the same informed decisions given their lack of knowledge in this area. In an interview with ET, the FUSA Media Officer Stephanie Walker said that ‘the proposed changes seem to suggest that Student Council wish to take responsibility away from any staff members that could have a bias or some sort of clout or power. The regulations I wrote in conjunction with other editorial teams, the Manager of student Engagements and previous ET liaisons were done so to ensure that even I would be helpless if I was inclined to censor or disrupt the Editors endeavours, unless it ran the risk of a lawsuit. Student Council would not have the surmountable knowledge [to make such decisions and] would probably ask for the Media Officer’s advice’. Manager of Student Engagement Chris O’Grady also said in an interview with ET that ‘Of course I support Student Councils right to make changes to the regulations governing FUSA where they see fit. However, when proposing radical changes to a regulation, I do encourage Student Council representatives to consult with all key stakeholders. In the case of proposed changes to the Empire Times Regulations, it is my view that the current Empire Times editors and FUSA Media Officer should be consulted given that they collectively possess a wealth of knowledge and experience with regards to the operation of Empire Times and student media more broadly. Unfortunately, this did not occur before the November SC meeting. However, Jack Harrison and Caleb Pattinson did meet with the current ET Editors, the Media Officer and myself on the 24th of November where all parties were given the space to discuss their positions. It was my understanding that Jack made an undertaking at the conclusion of the meeting to amend his proposed changes to the regulations based on the feedback provided.’
The writers of this article did not share this understanding and while a meeting did occur, at no point did Jack confirm that the amendments would appear at a future Student Council meeting instead of his previously proposed changes. As such, we had no reasonable evidence to assume that this meeting would result in any relevant changes and therefore did not cite the meeting. As expected, in the most recent SC meeting on December 1st, the amendments discussed during that meeting did not appear in the agenda and therefore were not proposed to SC. In fact, no ET regulation changes were proposed. It is speculated that this won’t be the last time SC see Jack’s changes. Instead, it is posited that these changes, without the amendments, may appear at a later date when the dust has settled and there will be less of a battle from editors.
Furthermore, it is a huge power hungry move to try and instigate a situation whereby there is potential for a democratically elected editorial team to be overruled by another democratically elected body. Jack Harrison declined to comment, however, in the unapproved November Student Council meeting minutes which ET we able to attain, Jack Harrison is quoted as saying ‘The justification for these changes is the shared ideology of “student run, student union” which I support. Therefore, the proposed changed to the Empire Times constitution would make the publication independent from FUSA.’ Given this, it seems that Jack Harrison wants an Empire Times independent of FUSA but not from the Executive or SC.
It’s laughable to think that Jack Harrison can assume the Executive will have time to properly go through the 52 pages of ET in a 48 hour period, each month, for the entire academic year. This is especially the case given that SC couldn’t even be relied upon to use their allocated quota of SC pages for each edition in 2015. If the Executive prevented an article from publication, this would cause delays in both the editing and design process. Moreover, a replacement would need to be found on the day of the article being withdrawn—near impossible to achieve—in order to stick to deadlines. If a replacement is not found, the printing of the edition is delayed and can therefore lead to late distribution and redundant articles due to the passage of time. If this were to happen, Jack Harrison also proposed that the Executive have the power to halt or stop ET Editors from being paid. This gross concentration of power has the real potential to be fatal for both editorial independence and to prevent conflicts of interest arising.
The 2015 Student Council elected Jack Harrison ET Liaison Officer in 2015, and yet he did not seek to obtain any consultation with the current Empire Times Editorial Team, nor the one returning ET editor in 2016. As it currently stands, according to the regulations ET Liaison Officer ‘means a member of Student Council who is appointed by Student Council to this role to provide a communication link between the Empire Times Editorial Team and Student Council’. Something Jack Harrison has failed dismally to do over his term. In Jack Harrison’s quest for power he only spoke to two thirds of the 2016 Editorial Team regarding the proposed changes, both of whom are yet to start their term and may be unaware of just how drastic these changes could be. The current Editors were blindsided and remained unaware until a few hours before the SC meeting, only being informed by the Media Officer after they were given a copy of the SC November agenda. It’s outrageous that the current Editors with over 4 years collective experience were not informed at any time during the process of creating these changes—nor was the Media Officer.
The way in which the changes to the ET regulations were proposed only encouraged confusion and a lack of understanding in a shady and gruesome attempt to rush through the proposal. Not only was the document that all SC members were given not the final copy, the original changes were incomprehensive due to poor track changes. To remedy this, during the meeting, Jack read out loud the many changes that he was proposing. In this way, SC members (of which not all were present) did not have the time nor the means to fully comprehend the nature of the changes and the extent to which they are detrimental. Should the SC have voted that night in favour of these changes, they would have been voting without a fair and balanced view formed.
The covert nature in which this proposal was introduced means that as outgoing Editors we must end our tenure concerned and anxious as to what the future holds for ET. As outgoing Editors, we have a vested interest in the publication’s future and do not want SC members to have veto rights on pre-press editions or budget and pay control. We will continue to fight for ET to be independent and uncensored as long as we can and hope that the incoming Editors will continue the battle. In a time when student publications are being threatened it is more vital that ever to shine a light on censorship and proposed concentrations of power in bodies that are overtly and inherently political.
Before you go, ask yourselves this: If this were a printed article, would SC and Jack Harrison have approved it?
Words by Laura Telford and Jess Nicole (2015 Outgoing Empire Times Editors)