Oxford’s new censorship body a threat to free speech
Until my term expired a few weeks ago, I was editor of Cherwell, the oldest student newspaper at Oxford University. It’s not a big deal, but it’s independent. Founded in the 1920s, and supported by advertising revenue and college subscriptions, it will only remain in business as long as it retains the interest and loyalty of its readers. And that’s what I thought was the point of journalism: to not just print what the authorities want us to do, but to publish in the public interest, without fear or favor.
Unfortunately, not everyone seems to agree. Consider the recent Oxford Student Union vote calling for the creation of a student advisory firm for sensitive readers. The name might sound innocuous, but the idea behind it is scary: check what student newspapers like the Cherwell publish to ensure that no “problematic” or insensitive content appears.
Surely you might think that it’s only under the world’s most oppressive regimes – Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China come to mind – that journalists have their stories inspected by an external body of censors before publication? But the student union apparently doesn’t see it that way. He believes that articles are printed which are “implicitly racist or sexist” or “simply generally inaccurate and insensitive”. And that this justifies, in effect, stripping student newspapers of their editorial independence.
As another former Cherwell editor, journalist Michael Crick, told The Telegraph: “The key element of journalism is that it must remain independent for those in positions of authority, and if the union of students don’t like it, they can create their own ”. The irony is that the student union manages and funds its own newspaper, The Oxford Student. If he really wants to impose disturbing new editorial standards on his own newspaper, he can do so and see if readers (or volunteer journalists) appreciate articles that have been panel reviewed. But any attempt to expand the program to external publications would be horrible. We don’t even know what the consequences of a policy violation will be, including whether there will be disciplinary action against those who refuse to participate.
And surely, politics fails on its own terms influenced by identity politics. Who is supposed to do the checking? As a woman with a disability, I imagine that I would be considered well qualified to judge the sensitivity of certain items on the basis of my “lived experience”. But my “experience” is only my own handicap, not that of others. Especially in Oxford, where there is such a variety of backgrounds, no group of “sensitive readers” could ever be large enough to cover all the issues that could be discussed in the articles.
None of this apparently was taken into consideration before the motion was passed. If the student newspapers had been informed that this vote was taking place, we could have mounted a defense and pointed out that we have our own rigorous editorial integrity processes in place.
If Oxford students don’t like what their paper prints, then they can stop reading it. If that is not enough to satisfy their outrage, they are free to pressure their college to unsubscribe or send a formal complaint. Student newspapers should not have their independence compromised just because a committee of a student union thinks they are not “sensitive.”