One thing that I have struggled with throughout my time as News Editor for the Wessex Scene – the University of Southampton Student Union’s student publication – has been its relationship with the Union itself.

Who is in charge and has final say over what goes in the Wessex Scene? Is it the students? Perhaps the Editor? Maybe VP Media and Comms? Or is it Union Management? Let’s face it, it’s official title I have already given is a bit of a mouthful – ‘ the University of Southampton Student Union’s student publication…’ Some people would have their own clear ideas, and anyone can offer any one of those responses to that question.

Two recent events have brought this issue ever-more to the foreground of my mind recently.

Firstly, the debate surrounding a Wessex Scene article written about events at So:bar on the last day of term – the bar closed early that night after a visit from the police. After an article was written about the early closure that night, by myself, it was shortly taken down from the Wessex Scene website after the bar threatened legal action over its publication. After lengthy discussion, the article was decided to remain taken down, after the manager of the bar claimed to already be pursuing legal action.

In my mind, no business is going to be very fond of an article that does not paint them in a good light. However, straight-forward news reports that are unbiased only report what happen; it is events themselves which make a business look bad – news stories just report on the events. I feel that the bar presumed a student newspaper would back off after being intimidated with legal action. Yet the news story simply reports what happened, and I am yet to ascertain on what grounds the bar intended to pursue legal action, as all facts have been checked several times and found to be correct.  I have copied it here below to demonstrate:

So:bar Closes Early After Police Visit 

So:bar closed early last Friday night after a visit from the police and officials at the Home Office.

Police and officials arrived at the establishment around 11.30pm, before the bar voluntarily took the decision to close early – switching off the music and asking students to leave from around 1.10 onwards.

A police officer said: ‘the bar voluntarily closed after a random visit from the Home Office with police officers. There was a couple of health and safety issues that staff wanted to reconsider before opening again.’

Local police would not comment further on the issue.

One police officer at the time, however, said: ‘So:bar breaks so many licensing laws, from the stairs to the amount of people – this could spell trouble for them.’

He later added, ‘the stairs are a death trap. They are so unsafe it’s unreal.’

So:bar re-opened the following evening.

The Wessex Scene previously reported that So:bar chose to close early as there was no licensee on site and the bar was found to be over capacity – something which the bar deny.

Manager of the bar, Parris Tyler, told the Wessex Scene: ‘this is the second article that has been written about our establishment and it is beginning to seem personal. So:bar shuts every Easter due to students going home. So:bar was also open the next day so couldn’t possibly have been shut due to health and safety.’

So:bar have refused to comment any further.

If licensing officials find So:bar to have committed any offence of the Licensing Act, then the bar could be charged up to £20,000, or even face being permanently closed down.

Third-year Geography student Ali Campbell was at So:bar Friday night. He said: ‘I was sitting in the outside part when I saw the police come down the steps about midnight. The bouncers asked us to leave just after 1am; they just said to drink up because they’re closing.

‘The police did stick around for most of the night; they went out and then back into the garden part again. It was really busy; the queue-jump queue was longer than the main one. There were people jumping over the side wall outside to get in, but the bouncers stopped them as soon as they saw.’ 

The Wessex Scene reported in January that So:bar were no longer selling Quad vods, after rumours of a licensing clamp down. Last year the bar also voluntarily withdrew their 1p pint Guinness promotion for St Patrick’s Day after recommendations from licensing officials.

 

We also spoke to various sources who informed us that the bar had no licensee on premise, something which is illegal for bars selling alcohol. However, the Wessex Scene did decide later to omit this information as, despite opposing claims, the manager argued this was not the case.

It was, however,  decided nonetheless that the article would remain taken down. Although I don’t like this decision – I feel there is nothing wrong with simply reporting news and do not think a student publication should be bullied into taking down factual news articles by a local bar fretting over business – I can see why it was reached, even if I don’t agree with it. If the bar did proceed with legal action then it would be a huge waste of the Union’s time and money. As a news reporter I find it frustrating that sometimes news cannot be reported, but have already acknowledged there are some stories Student Unions (Southampton anyway) just won’t print on ‘legal’ reasons.

The second event that made me again think seriously about this topic has been recent on-going discussion between the Wessex Scene and the Union over the Scene’s upcoming special issue. Last year, the Wessex Scene put together a highly successful special ‘sex issue’. This year we want to extend this theme to include alcohol, drugs, gambling etc – ‘Student Vices’, ‘Students: Laid Bare’, or something similar. However, the Union feel that a lot of the content ‘does not fit with the ethos’ of the Union and may compromise advertisement deals the Union has with external companies. Consequently the Union won’t produce a survey, like the sex survey published last year, and has asked the Wessex Scene to present all their ideas for the issue to them, to see if they are suitable as they are ‘worried’ about the content.

Now I am aware that I do not want these thoughts to turn into a rant, but am really interested to hear other thoughts on this matter. In my mind, student unions do not exist to make money, but support students and this should come first; making money on top of this is an added bonus. Student newspapers should not be restricted on what they can print by Union budgets and financial aims.

A Student Union newspaper or magazine is just that – a newspaper or magazine for students, by students.  It should not be seen as the mouthpiece of the Union, there is a Communications Sabb to fulfil that role. Yes, a Student Union does fund it, but it also has a separate budget for marketing and communications, surely it should not be the Wessex Scene’s job to fulfil these responsibilities.

The Union responded that the survey ‘is of no use to the Union’ and I think this is fundamentally an inappropriate approach for the Union to take.

Furthermore, the Wessex Scene should not be prevented from including articles about sex because the Union is worried it may alienate some students. If this is the case, then the Wessex Scene as a publication is willing to take that risk. Students have sex. It is not a big issue. If a student is going to be offended by a sex survey or issue then then they would have the common sense to not take the survey, or read the issue. Last year the Wessex Scene really pushed the boundaries and only got one complaint. Even still, publications receive complaints all the time – often their point is to engage discussion.

Unfortunately I could continue my argument much further, but am conscious of avoiding a rant. I would like to feel that all other extending points I would like to make can be anticipated by anyone reading this anyway.

Applications for The Guardian Student Media Awards are currently open, and explicitly say they are looking to award their prestigious ‘Student Publication of the Year’ to ‘risk takers who stand out from the crowd.’ A few years ago, Surge News was shortlisted for Student Radio Award and when came second was told on feedback form that they needed to take a few more risks and be more bold. How frustrating that I find our own Union prevents this. For now, it seems, they have final say over what goes in the Wessex Scene.

I should also note that I don’t mean this as a personal attack on anyone or the Sabbs specifically, I am merely voicing my frustrations that have extended throughout the year; unfortunately I think these opinions from Union are not actually those that originally came from the Sabbatical team, the leaders of our Union, quite ironically.

What do others think? Should the Union prevent the Wessex Scene from publishing certain stories? Should the Scene have to get approval from the Union to write specific articles? Perhaps I am too involved with the Scene to objectively acknowledge they may have a point. Are students alone equipped to deal with the issues that face the day-to-day tasks of running a business that is a Student Union? Are non-students equipped to deal with the day-to-day issues that face students within their Union? And where does, for them, the Wessex Scene fit between all this? Unfortunately I feel it’s not the same place where it fits for me, and many other students.

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