Students should stand up for press freedom

A London student on why he's fighting the anti-tabloid snobbery of both SUs and the state.

James Walker

Topics Free Speech

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Anti-tabloid snobbery was a recurring theme of 2016, and it seemed to take its strongest hold on university campuses.

I’m a student at City University, which is famous for its journalism programme. But in November, City’s students’ union made the headlines for all the wrong reasons when it voted to ban from our campus three tabloid newspapers – the Daily Express, the Sun and the Daily Mail. Queen Mary University’s students’ union, not wanting to be behind the times, voted to remove those same newspapers from its campus shop the following month.

Both bans were motivated by a disdain for the tabloids and the people who read them. The City motion caricatured these papers as mirrors of Nazi propaganda, before going on to say that popular columnists Richard Littlejohn and Katie Hopkins should have no place in the press. At Queen Mary, the authors of the motion said the papers are full of ‘hateful discourse’, and argued that the SU’s commitment to diversity would best be served by clamping down on the diversity of the press.

But this disdain for the popular press, and basically any political view to the right of Eddie Izzard, isn’t unique to ban-happy students’ unions. As the City and Queen Mary bans were hitting the headlines, state regulation of the press was once again rearing its head. Following on from the Leveson Inquiry, the government opened a public consultation at the end of last year on whether the next two new stages of Leveson – the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act and a second judge-led inquiry into the press – should go ahead. And pro-regulation groups were once again out arguing against the tabloids in much the same way a students’ union rep does.

Hacked Off, a campaign group bankrolled by wealthy celebrity donors, has backed Leveson from the start, taking umbrage at tabloid sexposés of celebrities, footballers and politicians that often make for the most entertaining tabloid journalism. It argues that such stories are invasions of privacy that in no way serve the public interest. Setting aside the fact that many of the best sexposés and stings have outed powerful hypocrites who pertained to uphold Victorian values, it is telling that the people at Hacked Off believe it is they, not the tabloid-reading public, who know what is in the public interest.

Then there’s Impress, the as yet only state-approved press regulator, which is backed by Hacked Off. Maire Messenger Davies, an Impress board member, called readers of the Sun ‘mugs’ for supporting Brexit. Another board member, Emma Jones, supports Stop Funding Hate, a campaign aimed at defunding tabloids. Gavin Phillipson, a member of the regulator’s code committee, went so far as to tweet that it was ‘such a shame we can’t just ban the Daily Mail’, adding that its readers have an ‘abnormal perception of reality’. According to Phillipson, one of the UK’s most popular news outlets is ‘the worst aspect of contemporary British culture’.

The out-and-out hatred these people show for what millions call their newspapers of choice – their intolerant desire to ban publications they find disagreeable – echoes the brand of censorious student politics the British press and public have come to ridicule. Yet, unlike a few barmy students’ unions, Impress could soon have the power to censor, neuter and regulate the British press to the point of redundancy.

If implemented, Section 40 would heap huge pressure on newspapers, both national and local, to sign up to state-backed regulation, or else be required to pay their opponents’ legal fees if a libel case is ever brought against them – whether they win or lose. They would be effectively asked to choose between bankruptcy and bending the knee to a state-backed regulator whose staff openly hates them.

Students at both City and Queen Mary are making a stand for press freedom. On Monday 9 January, myself and a group of students will be restoring copies of the Sun to both campuses to protest those – from SUs to Impress – who want to dictate what we can and can’t read. Follow our exploits on the hashtag #FreeThePress and respond to the consultation here to say NO to Section 40 and Leveson 2.

James Walker is a student at City University.

Watch James discuss the threat to press freedom:

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Topics Free Speech


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