The War on Quasi
My previous rant about my alma mater got me thinking. Now that I’m out of the system… I can bloody say what I want! And, more specifically, what I wanted to say last year when I was editor of Quasimodo, the University of Notre Dame Student Association’s student magazine.
In late 2006, I was honoured to be appointed as editor of Quasi. I had written several pieces for the mag in the preceedings years, and I loved what its existence meant: an outlet for students to write about what interests, or matters to, them and discuss ‘student life’ (as far as that term can apply at UNDA).
Then came the Bullshit.
There were lots of things that pissed me off. But what really got me upset was when they banned two versions of editorial I wrote for my first (ultimately only) issue.
The first version dealt with the reason why it had taken us longer than usual to get the issue out. I wasn’t “allowed” to talk about. Ignore it, they said to me, focus on what we have now. So I wrote on the importance of freedom of the press.
I guess it’s fair that I wasn’t allowed to publish that either. Cause we didn’t have freedom of the press!
Somehow The Sunday Times got wind of it. I had an “off the record” chat to a journo there, which, of course, got published that weekend:
Quasimodo editor Sunili Govinnage said the student association’s constitution ruled that the magazine be vetted by a review committee. She said the committee was meant to provide legal advice, but its student representative had been kicked off and its role was now “pure censorship”.
“They won’t allow any criticism of the university at all, even any analogies that might hint at criticism about freedom of speech,” she said.
Ms Govinnage said she was reduced to tears and felt “like an administration pawn” when the last edition was scrapped.
Ironically, its editorial was on the importance of press freedom.
“The university took it as a direct criticism of the vice-chancellor, which it
wasn’t,” Ms Govinnage said.
Hahahahahaha. That’ll teach me never to say anything “of the record” ever again, won’t it?
I thought I was going to get expelled. Seriously, I had probably never been so scared, or felt more like an 8-year-old who got caught stealing snakes from the Deli (which I have never, ever, done, by the way, this just felt as if I had, like I was falsley accused or something), in my whole life.
Here’s what I wrote about The Bullshit to appear in the Notre Dame Law Student Society paper, The Sundry Crimes, which is, of course, my version of the events:
Back in December 2006, the Uni admin approached the Student Association with a polite request that Quasimodo no longer be published. The concerns related to the cost of the publication and the fact that, in the past, the magazine had criticised the way things were done at Notre Dame without going directly to those responsible and giving them a chance to respond.
To be fair, once or twice Quasi got some little things wrong. The uni wasn’t impressed by the fact they were giving tied-grants to the Student Association (for other purposes) but that the Student Association was in turn spending a significant amount of cash (their own) on a publication which was bad-mouthing the uni.
Bottom line: either Quasi went, or the money went.
The Student Association and the Quasi Committee spent considerable effort getting more sponsorship, cutting down the costs of publication and making an effort to improve the way we write about things happening at Uni. Annabel Hay’s article on the new credit point/fees structure was well researched and all the facts were checked and signed off by the Registrar, who provided us with further information and his responses to our concerns.
But apparently it still wasn’t good enough … until we begged them to actually read the magazine. It was eventually ‘authorised’ for publication (although we’re still not sure what gave them the authority to authorise it or ban it) on the condition that the Vice Chancellor’s delegate gets to censor all inklings of profanity, references to sex, and the story behind the uni’s attempted ban of the mag itself.
Because we just had to get the thing to the printers due to our contractual commitments with our sponsors and the fact we had been fighting over this for months, we capitulated and just said ok to it all … it was more important to get the mag out before exams. Looking back now we’re not proud of it but it felt like we had little choice.
Here’s what we don’t get … we appreciate that we’re a private uni, and that there are something things that are off-limits, but we’re not a primary school. We reckon that our standard is pretty gosh-darn high in comparison to the other uni papers, and to censor the word ‘arsehole’ and ban us from using the common phrase ‘short and curly’ seems a little over the top.
And in terms of commenting, and even criticising university policy, we believe that as the constitutionally-created publication of the Student Association we’re allowed to talk about it in a reasonable, rational way and we shouldn’t be expected to be part of the Uni’s massive Public Relations machine.
‘Freedom of speech’ is a phrase that most of us have accepted into our vocabularies. Without getting into nitty-gritty arguments about human rights (whether they exist, are enforceable, should be legally/constitutionally recognised…) when someone talks about the freedom to express opinions and comment on social and political appenings in a democratic society, most of us probably take it for granted.
While we do not have a Bill of Rights which entrenches freedom of speech in the popularly-known sense, the High Court has recognised that ‘freedom of political communication’ is a fundamental right implied in the text and structure of our Constitution. This right is derived from the fact that we have a Parliament that is “directly chosen by the people”. We, the people, have a right to know everything about whom and what we’re voting for.
CEO of WA Newspapers, Ken Steinke, recently said that while “every government would prefer to have a compliant media which simply recycles the government’s version of events … that is not how The West Australian or any other ‘credible’ nedia organisation operates.”
“Many journalists and critics have encountered the inappropriate pressure applied by some government politicians and staff in an attempt to manipulate news coverage,” he said, but “that pressure has been ineffective and will continue to be resisted by all media.” [link]
It is with shame that I read those words. And from that shame I vow to never let our magazine, your magazine, be unnecessarily censored again. Sure, I agree with Jim McGinty that The West can be shonky (I only ever read the Today section, anyway), and I know Quasi isn’t a beacon of enlightened journalism, but what really is? We’re just a student newspaper, for crying out loud!
Regardless of concerns over quality, which can and in terms of Quasi, I believe has been fixed, I think it’s more important to have criticism and questioning in order to create a real dialogue and work towards improving the way things are done, rather than have the government and other authorities go on doing things their way without batting an eyelid or taking a look at themselves.
Suprise, suprise, this wasn’t allowed to go to print. The Law School didn’t want to risk The Admin coming down on them too.
But at least now it’s in cyber space. The editorial I wanted to print will be here shortly, too.