Friday, 2 March 2012

Keep the Cat free!

The importance of independent student journalism

In this week's Felix, I had intended to publish an article which exposed what I believe are serious problems with Imperial's Careers Advisory Service. It detailed how the service has been susceptible to privatisation, it explained why so much of our career advice is just advertising for the financial sector and it criticised the College for allowing such an important service to become biased towards wealthy corporations.

Before the article could be printed, however, a member of College staff emailed the Felix editor asking him not to publish it. She said that it contained accusations “which could be considered defamatory” in its “serious claims about a College service and its staff”. The email implicitly threatened Felix with legal action if it printed the article. Understandably, it was not published. 

This raises very serious questions about the independence of Felix, and its ability to report on mistakes, lies and corruption within the College. After all, what is a student newspaper for, if not to print stories like the one in question? Are we simply meant to paraphrase press releases from the College and the Union? Are we nothing more than a long-winded advertisement for those with power?

Freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the ability to publicly criticise authority. It means the ability for a writer to publish inconvenient truths without fear of reprisal, and the ability for her to criticise anyone without the looming threat of legal action.

Whenever I print an article or blog post critical of a person or institution, I am asked why I did not raise the issue with them privately beforehand. It is, they say, easier to solve problems without making them public. This may be true, but I do not write about these issues simply because I want them to be solved. I write also because I want to expose the behaviour of those in power, and I want students to be aware of the true motives of the people they are supposed to trust. If all issues were solved privately, then students would be made ignorant of events about which I believe they have a right to know.

Imperial is a company like any other and therefore seems to put profit ahead of the welfare of its students. Consider, for instance, the issue of coursework feedback. Students had been complaining for years about the quality of the feedback, but it was not until Imperial's dramatic drop in the most recent University league tables that the College actually did anything about the problem.

So it is with any such issue. Formally complaining, no matter how forcefully, will not work. We must shout angrily in any way possible about how terrible the issue is, we must publish articles, write blogs, inform national newspapers. We must attempt to give the College “brand” a bad reputation, and thereby make ignoring our complaints financially unwise. And if this means resorting to defamation then so be it.

The importance of student journalism in this uphill struggle should not be underestimated. It is by far the best method we have for rallying support behind a cause and, evidently, for troubling the establishment. But when student journalism is silenced, Universities can get away with anything. Who but Felix can constantly question Imperial's authority and actions?

Imperial College is a University of science and, as such, ought to be a place where criticism is accepted, and never silenced. If the College disagreed with my article, they could easily have written a response to be printed the following week. That is how debate works in newspapers and magazines. It does not work by banning controversial writing.

Student newspapers, in particular, have traditionally been the voice of opposition at Universities, but it appears that our University would be happier if we printed only those articles to which they had given their approval. What kind of newspaper behaves in such a way? How would we react if The Guardian only printed articles which had received the government's consent? In the words of George Orwell, “Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.”

As it happens, the offending article was published online 9 days before it was due to be printed in Felix, and it managed to reach quite a considerable audience. I urge you to read it, I think it is important to be aware of what our College is doing.

In the end, Imperial will find that silencing Felix was counter-productive, because it now looks very much like the College has something to hide, something it would rather its students did not hear. They will regret gagging Felix because now we will seek out College scandals with renewed vigour. Be sad, because your University is attempting to silence criticism, but be happy because they will not succeed.


  1. @sirjamesgreen2 March 2012 at 13:45

    I am sure, were you to write for the Guardian, you would find yourself in trouble for the previous article. Allow me to pick some choice phrases, reread them with an objective critical eye and see whether you can understand the argument for them being defamatory.

    "Here is the result: the story of how Imperial's Careers Advisory Service (CAS) fucks with your mind and steals your future."

    "Or does it sound more like a cynical way to use students for profit?"

    "What we have here is a careers service which, because of its apparent corporate bias, changes students' perceptions of the jobs market and seems to force them towards lives they don't want to lead."

    " University, it seems, will soon be not about education but rather producing a steady stream of workers for large companies. With our CAS behaving as it does, I fear that this process is already beginning at Imperial."

    "our Careers Advisory Service has been effectively privatised. "

    "Or to act as for-profit advertising for the richest corporations, while deceiving students of their genuine opportunities? "

    Not to mention - your research on Cambridge was flawed and shallow -
    - will be worth a read.

    Journalists should only be free to be responsible. What you have written is inflammatory, defamatory, incorrect and ultimately flawed. Your urge to be outraged has overridden an opportunity to inform students.

    Slow down, relax and write a considered, balanced article free of accusations of "selling out" to the corporate man. Otherwise your writing looks shallow.

    1. I don't understand the problem with being inflammatory and defamatory. This was, after all, intended to be a Comment article, not a News story or a Feature. All the quotes you have given are opinions which I believe to be well backed-up by the facts presented. Comment articles aren't intended to be "balanced" or "free of accusations".

      On the other hand, thank you for pointing out the Cambridge mailing information to me. Evidently something I had missed. I will correct the Careers article accordingly. As far as I am aware, there are no other factual errors with that article. In particular, every fact about Imperial was information taken directly from Imperial's website, so if it is untrue then that is the fault of the College.

      I have noticed that since I first published the Careers article, information on the Careers website has changed, in particular the price of Careers fairs. The College then criticised me for getting my facts wrong, and stated that my article was factually incorrect as a result.

    2. @sirjamesgreen2 March 2012 at 14:28 also exists, while we are correcting Cambridge. Providing "meetings" rather than dinners. Further there are "sponsorship" opportunities for large companies.

      The point is, the careers service is not doing anything underhand, or different from other universities, but you present it as a scheme to push us towards banks.

      I am interested in seeing the article published because I believe it is genuinely of interest to students to know what services careers provide to recruiters. For that to happen you probably have to remove the rhetoric on careers acting to some ulterior motive to make money rather than acting in student's interests.

    3. I had no problem with the Patron's Club in itself, my problem was that allows companies "to invest in the future development of the Careers Advisory Service." This is not something that the Cambridge equivalent does. Moreover, Imperial's club gives real benefits only to those companies which donate over £1,000 (The dinners, for example, are not open to companies who are not rich enough to afford such a donation). As far as I can tell, Cambridge has no such price barrier.

      Furthermore, Cambridge's sponsorship opportunities are not as far-reaching as those at Imperial. My problem with sponsorship at Imperial was that "an undisclosed sum of money will enable your company to position its stall at the entrance to a career's fair, so you can attract (or distract) more students than your competitors." This, as far as I am aware, is rather more than Camrbidge offers. "Sponsorship opportunities include bags to be given out to students at the Event and branded polo shirts for our Event helpers," says the Cambridge website, and I think this kind of sponsorship is far less intrusive and worrying.

      In my opinion Imperial's careers service goes substantially further than other universities' services in appearing to give priorities to the wealthy, and that is my problem with it. It is not a scheme to push us towards banks, it is a scheme intended to make money, and the apparent financial bias is an inevitable consequence. I argue that the College should provide the CAS with more funding so that it doesn't need to price charities, small businesses and other, less wealthy companies out of its services.

    4. Also, I agree with you somewhat on the last point. I had originally intended it to be a Feature, with an associated Comment article. Then students could have seen the facts and the opinion separately. But the idea really didn't work at all, the Feature was bland and the Comment article was repetitive and whiny. This way works much better stylistically, but inevitably sacrifices impartiality. The question is how to show anger without being inflammatory. I'll adapt the article again and see what I can do.

  2. Wow. I can understand why Matt didn't want to publish it after receiving such an email, but if everything in the article was true there would be no grounds for legal action. Not to mention how much worse any legal action would make the College look – and how much more attention it would draw to the issue.