Last week’s announcement that Oxford University students are establishing a group of “sensitivity readers” to review articles is yet another sign that student journalism is at a precarious moment.
From now on, the university’s student publications could be subjected to external vetting for potentially harmful content, which not only puts their editorial independence at risk, but would surely lead to self-censoring among writers and editors.
Worrying though the external arbitrators in Oxford are, the vetting within student papers should also give cause for concern. Take The Student, a fortnightly newspaper based at the University of Edinburgh which balances editorial independence with student union funding. Having both edited The Student within the last two years, we were privy to the internal standards by which contentious material is judged.
The most recent version of the paper’s ‘Guide to Sensitive Reporting’, updated in 2021, tells writers to “remember that racism is structural and by definition affects only people of colour”. In vivid bold are the words, “’Reverse-racism’ does not exist”, while attention is drawn to “a climate of racism and rising fascism fuelled in great part by mainstream media”.
Perhaps this didacticism is why hundreds of unthumbed copies of The Student — a large portion of the print run — line the recycling bins of Scotland’s capital every other week.
The same guide reminds writers of their “size privilege; if they are not obese”, and recommends avoiding the words ‘male’ and ‘female’, as they are “medicalised binary terms which exclude trans people”. Also on the list of banned terms is “women’s rights”. This, apparently, is what now passes for progressivism.
Idioms like ‘blind spot’ and ‘turn a deaf ear to’ are deemed offensive, while the word ‘crippled’ is asterisked in any context. Do these arbitrators seriously believe that such language is threatening?
The ability to freely express what one thinks has been demoted while a highly partisan perception of accuracy and sensitivity reigns supreme.
Ethical, precise reporting is essential in a climate where ‘alternative facts’ can overtake the truth, while defamation and libel laws are a legitimate obstacle to student writers saying exactly what they please. But these regulations, based on individual whim rather than universal press standards, go much further.
It should come as no surprise, then, that students writing for their university newspapers have succumbed to self-censorship. The tribulations of Lisa Keogh, who faced disciplinary action for saying that women have vaginas and are not as physically strong as men, move students to (quite understandably) think twice before saying anything deemed remotely controversial.
For all the columns written on campus freedoms and all the comments made by political elites, we need students to assert their independence. Force-fed free speech policies are unlikely to win over the masses. Student publications must try to wean their writers and editors away from their comforting, censorious instincts. Championing more robust and critically engaging journalism is a good place to start.
Rob Lownie and Sam Bayliss are Edinburgh University students and both are Free Speech Champions.