Kinnan Zaloom recently stepped down as an editor of The Galleon, Portsmouth University’s student newspaper. In this provocative and revealing op-ed, he recalls the troubling events that led him to his decision.
I’ve always hated the idea of people getting involved in university societies and activities just to boost their CVs. Volunteering ought to be selfless. But as my one-year term as Reaction Editor for The Galleon came to an end, I realised that I too was starting to feel seduced by the prospect of a better looking resumé. Worse than that, the role had become a burden due to an overbearing and bureaucratic students’ union and an increasingly apathetic student community. I did not run for the position again.
When I first joined The Galleon as an ambitious fresher, I was keen to wield my pen against injustice and corruption. I was shocked when my first article, which criticised Monsanto, was pulled out of fear that the genetic modification giant would sue us. I was curious – and deeply concerned – about how and why this decision had been made. It transpired that the then Vice-President of Activities had, in my view, misused the power invested in them by the University of Portsmouth Students’ Union (UPSU), as laid out in the Union’s media handbook.
The handbook states that the VP of Activities is automatically the Editor-in-Chief of all four of our student media: The Galleon, Pugwash magazine, PureFM and UPSUTV. This individual has the power to edit, censor or withhold any broadcast or article, regardless of whether he or she has any prior experience of working in the media. Furthermore, the VP of Activities receives no formal legal training as part of the job. Such a policy is clearly detrimental to the editorial independence of student media, and UPSU is yet to address this problem.
Upon becoming Reaction Editor, I felt it my duty to investigate allegations of misconduct surrounding the 2014 sabbatical officer elections and re-elections. I requested important information on this matter from UPSU and was repeatedly ignored. After I co-authored an article in The Galleon pointing out contradictions in UPSU’s account of the elections, I was promised a response by the then newly elected President of the Union, Grant Clarke. To this day, I am still waiting for his response. This is distressing, given that Clarke had claimed in his election manifesto to want to ‘enforce full transparency at your SU.’ (As a side-issue, we have since elected Vice-President of Education and Democracy who, disappointingly, hasn’t yet addressed major concerns regarding their own election).
Later on, I requested the minutes of Union Leadership Team meetings regarding a disproportionate increase in the alumni membership fee and the Union’s renewal of its contract with club night promoter Eskimo11. I was promised, again and again, that these minutes would be provided to me. At the time I’m writing this, some 239 days later, I still don’t have them. Shouldn’t the highest executive body of an organisation claiming to be ‘student-led’ be fully transparent and accountable?
The above problems seem insignificant when compared to the Union’s threat to shut down our free media platforms earlier this year. Spurred on by the desire to commodify and commercialise all student activity (which also seems to be the mindset of University management), UPSU informed the committees governing these platforms that it was planning to ‘review their funding’ and that The Galleon et al would have to obtain commercial sponsorship and charge a membership fee to those – like me – involved in them.
In my view, a students’ union that doesn’t recognise the importance of a media platform that is free for all students to access, is a students’ union not worth having. Again, at the time of writing this, I have no idea what the current official status of that policy is, as, once again, no minutes of Union Executive meetings are available.
Perhaps the most disturbing action taken this year against The Galleon came not from the Union but from our very own careers office, Purple Door. Copies of The Galleon are left for anyone to pick up free of charge in most campus buildings, Purple Door included. After I published an article critiquing Purple Door’s administration of one of my course units, their head sent an email to my managing editor protesting the article’s use of their logo and stating that they could no longer allow The Galleon to be distributed in their office. For a university department to actively restrict the reach of a student publication – and by extension students’ freedom of speech and expression – is another despicable form of censorship.
If career advisors can’t handle criticism themselves, I wonder how they can reasonably counsel students about “selling” themselves to prospective employers. Purple Door could do with asking itself that hackneyed interview question, ‘What is your greatness weakness?’
I am not the first, and will not be the last, to disengage from a union activity as a result of UPSU’s dishonesty and incompetence. The Union desperately needs to address concerns a little more pressing than where one might purchase a UPSU Athletic Union-branded onesie. Urgent questions must be answered about failures of transparency, accountability, democracy and representation.
I thought being an editor on The Galleon would be an excellent opportunity to write and think freely and critically. Instead, I spent a lot of time being forced to accept unjust and unreasonable Union and University decisions. The managers of both institutions carry themselves with an air of conceit and seem to take perverse pride in tying everyone and everything up with red tape. The consequence is that students are unable to effectively campaign for their own welfare and rights.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.