António Rolo Duarte
It has been a rough start for student media at The University of Manchester this academic year. Just last week, student newspaper The Mancunion was forced to go to print with two pages of improvised advertisements after university staff threatened with legal action if the newspaper printed an interview it had conducted with President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Earlier this year, we too at THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE suffered a similar experience when we interviewed the vice-chancellor.
This kind of behavior by university staff cannot be accepted in a society ruled by liberal values, where the free press holds and must continue to hold a central position. That is why this week, both the editor of The Mancunion and I are writing to express our concern over the issue.
From pressuring to threatening
In April, THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE conducted an interview with President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell – recently, in September, it was The Mancunion’s turn. The only condition agreed before both interviews took place was that there would be a university media relations officer present at the interview. In both cases, after the end of the interview and with the tape already turned off, the media relations officer asked for a draft to be sent over before the article was published. In both cases the reporters agreed. At no point was it agreed that the vice-chancellor or her staff would be able to make changes to the articles before they were published.
In both cases, however, after receiving the drafts the media relations office demanded that changes were made to the final copy of the interviews. Pieces of text were to be deleted, words that were not said were to be added, and sentences were to be changed. Let it be clear that these changes did not lead to a total makeover of the pieces – in fact, most of them bordered on insignificant and were about polishing the speech of the vice-chancellor. But they were more than enough for both The Mancunion and us to consider that the interference risked our independence and was therefore unacceptable.
We both conveyed that to the media relations office. In our case at THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE, we later received a phone call in which it was said to us that the vice-chancellor was very adamant about the changes and would refuse to speak to anyone from THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE in the future if the interview was published without being altered.
This kind of behaviour by university staff cannot be accepted in a society ruled by liberal values, where the free press holds and must continue to hold a central position.
Regarding The Mancunion’s case, the media relations office went one step further. In an email to the newspaper, a media relations officer says that the interview “can’t go in the paper this week”, due to alleged factual errors. Later, just as the newspaper was about to go to print, the media relations office made a phone call to the University of Manchester Students’ Union (which owns The Mancunion) and threatened to sue for defamation if the article was printed.
The media relations office has since failed to explain what exactly it considered defamatory. What is more, this does not seem to be the attitude of the university towards outside bodies. Contacted by The Mancunion, representatives of the Sunday Times, New Statesman and Times Higher Education all said that they could not recall similar requests for copy approval being made when they interviewed the vice-chancellor.
It is unquestionable that President and Vice-Chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell and the media relations office both have a number of outstanding qualities from which students benefit significantly every day. However, if the university does not behave inappropriately with writers from outside Oxford Road, then it should not do so with its own students.
Writers from THE MANCHESTER MAGAZINE, The Mancunion or any other student publication must continue to be able to operate independently and free from outside pressures. This has not been the case in these two occasions. While something that happens one time might be an isolated incident; when it happens twice, we have a pattern. This pattern needs to be changed – for the benefit of students, the freedom of the press and the university’s reputation. TMM