26th September 2016

Editorial: Silenced by the university

The university forced The Mancunion to pull an interview with Nancy Rothwell from our first print edition of term by threatening legal action

This week’s interview with Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell was planned for our Welcome Week print edition of the paper; however, the university’s press office forced the interview to be removed by threatening defamation minutes before the print deadline.

When approached for a comment on this a university spokesperson completely rejected “any accusations of censorship. We agreed an interview with a student journalist who, when he conducted the interview, admitted he’d never interviewed anyone before. As on many previous occasions, we asked for and were promised sight of the article in advance to ensure that quotes and their context were correct.

“Despite chasing, we received a copy of the draft article only hours before the deadline and far too late to address the important factual and other mistakes in the article. We asked for the article to be held over until the following week and received agreement from the Students’ Union for this.

“The University regularly provides comments, interviews and statements for Mancunion and other student media and would never seek to censor what they publish. It is for these publications themselves to decide what they print. However, like all other publishers, they have a responsibility to abide by undertakings they have given and to ensure that what they publish is fair, accurate and not defamatory.”

Despite this statement they have been unable to point out what exactly they believed to be defamatory. Legal advisors have also stated that nothing in the interview was grounds for threatening libel action.

For the university to force a story to be pulled in such a way was an affront to free press, which we believed could not go unchallenged or unreported.

The issue arose, as stated by the university spokesperson, due to the Vice-Chancellor not being able to approve the copy. Prior to the interview there was no mention that copy approval was a requirement, and it was only after the interview had been conducted and the tape turned off that they asked this of our Features Editor.

Allowing subjects to have copy approval is not our policy, nor that of most other publications. We believe it risks our journalistic independence as it opens up the opportunity for the subject to try and alter their quotes post-interview. This is exactly what happened in this case, with attempted changes including the Vice-Chancellor’s claim that “less than one per cent of the total” of staff saw job cuts in the last few years to a “few per cent”, and the removal of adjectives used to describe her.

We expressed our reluctance to let them approve the interview in person at the beginning of the week prior to the first issue to the university press office, and came to the compromise that the President could see the quotes—but at no point was it agreed that the quotes or any content of the interview could be changed retroactively.

On the day of our print deadline they changed their minds and decided they needed to see the whole interview before 2pm that day, otherwise it would be pulled from print. It was sent at midday (more than nine hours before we sent the edition to print, despite their claims), with time to spare, yet they claimed that they had not been given enough time to approve it so it would have to be pulled.

They also claimed there were factual inaccuracies, but refused to specify further than this. They even offered to provide their own content to replace the interview. A decision was made by our editorial team to go ahead with the interview despite this, rather than letting the university dictate the content of our first issue of term.

We continued to produce the rest of the issue and by 9pm were ready to send it off to the printers. It was at this point that the university’s Director of Communications phoned our General Secretary Naa Acquah and threatened to sue for defamation if the interview was sent to print. With no time to argue our case or stand our ground the interview had to be pulled and adverts created in its place.

We have since been made aware that we are not the only student publication to be treated in such a way. Volunteer journalists at The Manchester Magazine were asked to make changes to the Vice-Chancellor’s quotes in their interview with her last term—just as with us, this interference was seen as an affront to journalistic integrity and was refused. They say they were then told that if the interview was published without the Vice-Chancellor’s changes the university would never speak with the publication again. This threat forced them to cancel the publication of the interview.

The Vice-Chancellor has been interviewed by national media many times, who as the press office themselves readily admit, are not asked for copy approval. They therefore should not expect it from us, and they definitely should not have tried to obtain it by backing us into a corner with use of legal threats just before the deadline.

The Vice-Chancellor claimed in her interview with The Mancunion that “freedom of speech was [the university’s] core value”—but if the Vice-Chancellor feels she can rewrite the work of her own students, does this value not come into question?

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