This week I read with interest a letter printed in Nottingham Students' Union's "Impact" magazine by their Students' Union Community Officer, Lou Green. Mr Green wrote how the first issue of the magazine that year had run with the headline "Shottingham", referring to a shooting which had taken place in the city, and how he felt the headline gave a "false negative stereotype" of the city. What I think Mr Green's article boiled down to was that he felt that, given all the positive aspects of student life in Nottingham to shout about, surely the choice of a story about a shooting in the city was a purposefully negative one, given the wealth of positive articles the paper might have run instead.
This issue will no doubt have been debated internally, both before and after publication, and while I'm certain that Impact's editorial took reasonable care to ensure their content was fair and balanced, I can't and won't try to add my tuppence-worth to an issue I know virtually nothing about. That said, a sad fact of any media-led culture seems to be that "bad news sells". Instead, I want to relate Mr Green's letter to an issue which arose on the day of distribution of issue 4 of Pugwash News - Wednesday 14th November - which carried the headline "Student murdered in Hilsea".
On the morning we were due to start handing out the newspaper, I received a completely unexpected request from the University's marketing department requesting that the newspaper not be handed out in the Union until the end of a University open day which was taking place there. Given that the Union building is owned by the University, and after some considerable debate, I agreed to temporarily hold the newspaper.
To the best of my knowledge, the University's reason for asking that the paper not go out in the Union was that they didn't wish to project a negative image of the city to prospective students. While I can appreciate this motivation, and am as keen as the next person to see Portsmouth University's student numbers continue to grow over the next few years, I can't help questioning whether their request was appropriate.
Somewhat ironically, anyone wandering next door into Balfour's on that or any other day could have picked up a copy of the Portsmouth News, complete with stories of good and bad happenings around the city. Although I haven't asked their manager, I doubt a similar request to hide any newspapers which may have suggested anything bad ever happens in Portsmouth was received...
In deciding whether or not to pull the paper, I had a fairly heated discussion with our Chief Exec. In it, I was reminded that I wear "two hats" as Media & Publications Officer; one as an editor figure for the Union's student publications, and the other as a trustee of the charity. Frustratingly for me in this situation, those two hats brought with them diametrically-opposed viewpoints; with one, I felt compelled to fight for the rights of the publication to be distributed freely amongst the student population.
Meanwhile, the other "hat" - as a trustee of the Union's charity and therefore tasked with ensuring the Union continues to provide for its future students - required me to think long-term and ask myself whether it was right to risk scaring off large numbers of potential students for the benefit of one newspaper article. On the balance of this argument, I think the right course of action was the one taken; to hold the paper, and then to whinge to anyone and everyone who'd listen about it afterwards... ;o)
Still, it's important to remain philosophical at times like these: while the principle of embargoing a newspaper which is perfectly within its rights to print what it did makes the blood boil, and results in arguments which include phrases like "freedom of speech", "hypocrisy" and "megalomaniacs", the embargo only lasted a few short hours, and the paper still managed to hit the student population by the following day with no problems. And, at the risk of sounding like I'm contradicting myself, the Union buildings belong to the University and, ultimately, they can do as they wish in those buildings. We can only hand out Pugwash News on campus by the University's good grace, and long may this continue for the benefit of the student population.
I place implicit trust in my entire editorial team working on both Pugwash News and Pugwash magazine. To coin a clich