How the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy turned into press censorship

In the week that the Leveson Report (recommending statutory – albeit arms-length – regulation of the press) was published, I’ve written in Cherwell about the Leeds Student Union’s attempt to muzzle its student paper, the Leeds Student. The NUS ‘No Platform’ policy is now having a chilling effect on the freedom of the student press. Quick shout out to my cousin Joe (pictured) who is Sports Editor on the LS; it is through him I first heard about this disconcerting development. 

Update: apparently the NUS motion – which was put to a referendum – has been resoundingly voted down: 1448 against vs. 399 for. Hurrah!

Just occasionally it’s important to look at the world outside this lovely little bubble in Oxfordshire. Bear with me for 5 minutes: as students – not as the apathetic apprentices to the Establishment we are often caricatured as – we should all be getting very upset about this week’s Leeds Student Union motion to censor their student press, specifically the excellent Leeds Student newspaper.

Most people will be familiar with the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy. If not, quickly swot up. Since its institution in the 90s No Platform has been continuously reinterpreted to encroach on more and more areas of student life. The status of student newspapers, the vast majority of which (including the Oxford Student, though not Cherwell) are supported by their student unions, has always been ambiguous but that old hang up students have about ‘free speech’ has for many years kept the student press editorially independent. Until now. After the Leeds Student published an interview with BNP leader Nick Griffin the student union has brought forward a motion to formally extend No Platform to the student press, preventing the LS from publishing stories about Griffin, or George Galloway, presumably unless the tone is suitably derogatory.

Image: Joe Bookbinder

The interview is very short, and generally unremarkable. Towards the end Griffin says some pretty unpleasant things about gay people. After the transcript there is a staunch defence of publishing the article. ‘Nick Griffin is an elected MEP, and three years ago in Leeds, a BNP candidate was also elected to the European Parliament. Whilst the views of this party may be unsavoury to say the least, whether we like it or not, they have sufficient local support to return elected members into political office.’ I happen to agree with that; in my view the best way to deal with extremists is not to marginalise them, but to let them undo themselves under the full glare of the public eye. Does anyone seriously believe that Griffin’s appearance of Question Time in 2009 had anything but a crushing effect on the BNP? Since then the party has performed absymally at local and national elections, it has suffered a leadership crisis and lost an MEP.

But you don’t have to agree with me to detest the Leeds Union motion. Because the real question is who decides? It seems that plenty of Leeds students disagreed with the Griffin interview – that’s not surprising – but, seemingly lacking any sense of irony, by seeking to infringe on the editorial independence of the LS the student union has itself embraced Griffin’s fascistic nonsense. As part of Cherwell’s editorial team I suppose I should be very excited by the student union’s attempt to castrate its newspaper. Embarrassingly, the LS has been winning more national awards than Cherwell in recent years. We would love to see a competitor emasculated by censorship.

Except not really, because it sets a dodgy precedent for other student unions around the country to fiddle with their own papers. Incidentally the Oxford Student published an interview with Griffin earlier this year and, as far as I know, they didn’t suffer any repercussions. The problem comes when assumptions lose their potency. Pre-Leveson, that assumption with regards to the press – national, regional and student – had always been that free speech is sacred. And though the student rags are small beer next to the national publications, we should be in no doubt that the culture change Leveson has provoked will empower the NUS at the expense of the student press in the same way that it will empower government at the expense of the nationals.

Should Leeds Student Union approve next week’s motion, I would suggest their obvious course of action would be to stuff ’em and go independent. It works for Cherwell and Varsity, in Cambridge. Whether it’s financially viable is a question beyond my pay grade, but even if going independent involved significant downsizing the LS should ask itself: who would want to read a paper that patronises its readership by censoring offensive content?

And whilst I’m loath to make this obvious disclaimer, sadly I feel compelled to lest I be labelled a BNP-sympathiser by some rabid demonstrator. So listen: I don’t like fascists either. I find their ideology repugnant and wholly illogical. So confident am I in that assertion that I’m going to trust my peers to draw that conclusion for themselves. This very much echos the Leeds Student’s defence of the article: ‘We are not here to police what students read; we know that students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds.’ Quite right. But what if they aren’t? Hell, the price you pay for a free society is that there might occasionally be some uglies knocking about. Get over it.

A final thought; it is no doubt the leftish constituent of the NUS that is pushing No Platform down our throats. How tragic it is, given the debt free societies owe to the progressive Left, that a movement with such a noble history should now turn its energies to stifling the printed word. How hollow and insecure the Left must be for it to shy away from the debates it once dominated. Perhaps the Left should stop doing Nick Griffin’s job for him.

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