By James Poole
Former editors of Palatinate have spoken out against attempts by Vice-Chancellor Chris Higgins to control the editorial slant of the newspaper. In one instance the Vice-Chancellor suggested that a colleague instigate formal disciplinary action against the Editor, despite not having read the article in question.
In an article published in the Times Higher Education on Thursday, four former editors claimed that they were pressured by Higgins not to publish stories critical of the University. Two of the former editors added that they feared expulsion from the University for their work at Palatinate.
Daniel Johnson, an editor of Palatinate in 2011, received an e-mail directly from the Vice-Chancellor that contained a series of suggestions for the content of the newspaper. This e-mail, retrieved from the Palatinate e-mail archives, followed the publication of reports in Palatinate that exposed the University’s acceptance of financial donations from Middle Eastern governments.
In his e-mail, Chris Higgins said:
“I would ask you, as a responsible editor to question, yes, but to ensure this is balanced and responsible.
“I offer to write a general article for the first issue to help redress this balance.
“Perhaps you should invite some of our staff and students who are from the Middle East or work there to help provide the balanced coverage one would expect from a world university such as Durham.”
Later in 2011 Johnson published a report that exposed significant links between the newly-appointed Master of University College, Professor Held, and Saif Gaddafi, son of Colonel Gaddafi.
Following the publication of this story, Johnson claimed that he was threatened with “serious disciplinary measures” and was told that he should resign as editor of Palatinate. Johnson stated that Chris Higgins communicated his demands through Paddy Reilly, Chief Executive of the Students’ Union, whose responsibilities include liaison between the University and student media. Reilly worked to diffuse the situation.
A Durham Students’ Union Spokesperson said that “the Union has consistently upheld and defended its members’ rights to freedom of speech” and when encountering differences of opinion with the University, have “robustly defended student journalism and have mediated to find solutions.”
Speaking to Palatinate recently on the University’s involvement with student media, Daniel Johnson said:
“Among many other things, part of the job of a student newspaper is to scrutinise what a university does and the policies it has towards its students.
“It’s hard to try and do that objectively if they’re involving themselves in the content and production of the newspaper.”
Another former editor of Palatinate claimed that she was accused by the Vice-Chancellor of “smearing” the University for publishing an article entitled “Is a degree from Durham worth £9,000 a year?”
In an exclusive interview with Palatinate, another former editor, then Comment Editor, Charlie Taverner, said:
“The article was a two-sided comment piece evaluating whether all Durham degrees are worth £9,000 a year.
“[One] History student argued on the ‘no’ side, writing that most of the fees paid by History students are spent on inadequate library facilities.
“The Chief Librarian at the University proceeded to directly e-mail the author demanding an immediate apology. Palatinate then had to remove the piece from online and print an apology in the next edition.
“I believe that the University dealt with this in a heavy-handed and unprofessional manner.
“The University is extremely apprehensive about the slightest criticism from the student body.”
The day after the publication of the article, in an e-mail to the Chief Librarian, the Vice-Chancellor suggested:
“[Y]ou might wish to consider whether by publishing the article he has broken any University regulations, and whether it might [be] appropriate to take formal disciplinary action against him [the Editor of Palatinate] as a student of this University.”
This advice came despite the fact that the Vice-Chancellor admits in the message that he had “not seen the article” himself.
Similarly, Harriet Line, another former editor of Palatinate and current student said:
“During my editorship of Palatinate, I felt pressurised to conform to the University’s editorial ideals.
“On several occasions, I received a dressing-down by senior members of staff when they disagreed with the editorial slant taken by the newspaper, and I was made very aware that I was in a precarious position as a student at the University.”
“’Without a doubt the University overstepped the mark by taking an iron-fist approach to a publication which is solely in place to impartially inform the student body.”
One JCR President, who wishes to remain anonymous, has expressed his anger at the University’s involvement with Palatinate:
“I understand the University wanting to present a good image of themselves as it benefits past and present students, but to be quite frank, Palatinate is not the place to do it.
“It is disgraceful to think that our Vice-Chancellor, someone who is supposed to oversee the fairness of disciplinary actions, could be involved in such activities.”
He added that this did no favours for the University and the idea of a “culture of fear” cited in a review of governance, debated last month.
A University spokesperson commented:
“The University is committed to freedom of expression within the law. We have never disciplined a student for publishing controversial material in good faith, nor would we ever do so.
“We are very supportive of the commitment of Palatinate to follow the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice.”