The crisis at London Student: an outsider’s view
A comment from Simon Hardy on the crisis at London Student
Many activists on the student left will have followed the crisis at the University of London Union (ULU). The editor of the London Student newspaper, Jen Izaakson, is at loggerheads with the ULU executive over recent elections, and has been threatened with the sack via a ‘no confidence’ motion.
An argument erupted in early March over whether the London Student had been biased in its coverage of the election to choose its editor for the next year. A series of complaints led to the annulment of the election, which had been contested by Oscar Webb (supported by several members of the ULU executive) and Katie Lathan, a member of the current London Student editorial team. Both candidates identify with the political left, and activists within the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts supported Oscar.
London Student is the official ULU newspaper. The controversy centred on the ‘random facts’ that the London Student team published alongisde the election manifestos. Some candidates’ facts were positive or uncontroversial, while others were negative. As I understand it, there is no question that the facts were untrue.
I was active on the student left for a number of years, although I am no longer involved directly in student politics.
From the outside, the whole crisis – which sees two sections of the left, both sides counting supporters of the Anticapitalist Initiative among their number – is the kind of bitter public row that leads many to despair with the radical left. Such rows, for reasons unknown, are a particularly common feature of student politics. But this shouldn’t lead us to assume there is not an important issue of principle here.
Jen Izaakson is facing a vote of no confidence that would see her sacked (the resolution can be read here). This is an extreme sanction that should only be taken by student unions, trade unions, or any other association in cases of gross misconduct that make it impossible for the official in question to continue to do their job. For example, where someone is exposed of racist or fascist associations.
Not only is the sanction extreme but the resolution makes a series of unspecified accusations, including purely subjective opinions on the quality of London Student’s journalistic output.
One of the reasons for the sacking concerns a trip Jen took to Australia, which was provided by a free flight with an airline and some hostels allow student journalists to stay for free in the hope of getting a review out of it. Many London Student editors over the years (four of the last six) have taken similar trips to Australia. The trips generated material for the travel section of the London Student paper. No previous editor was sacked for this but this is part of the case being made against Jen. If this is gross misconduct then why is she the only one being singled out for it?
On every charge set out in the motion it is impossible for a reasonable person to conclude that a gross misconduct is at all justified. The timing of this motion screams foul play, following so soon after the high profile London Student campaign against the annulment of the election of its new editor.
So what about the cause of the dispute itself? ULU received 20 complaints about the London Student election coverage focusing on the ‘random facts’ published in the paper. Some candidates felt that these were politically motivated and intended to promote one candidate over another.
If it had been found that either Jen or the candidate for editor, Katie Lathan, was responsible for the coverage then the latter would have been disqualified. The election committee could not prove they were responsible, as neither Izaakson nor Lathan was in the newspaper office when the edition was being prepared. Jen had taken two weeks’ annual leave to work on Lathan’s campaign. Another member of the editorial team signed off the ‘random facts’. Since neither were involved in the production of London Student, Lathan was not disqualified.
However, the committee chose to annul the elections. They refused to release the results and instead opted to turn the selection of the next editor over to the 15-person ULU Senate. Katie Lathan appealed against this and ULU President Michael Chessum upheld the annulment. The appeals process is now moving to the next stage, the highest point of which would see the matter taken before Sir Adrian Smith, the vice-chancellor of the University of London. Chessum has argued the elections should be re-run from scratch.
Several conclusions need to be drawn:
(i) The London Student elections coverage should have been signed off by the Returning Officer but wasn’t. It would be fair for the ULU Senate to say this was wrong, pass a motion of censure against the editorial team and set up a commission to review how better procedures could be established in the future to avoid this happening.
(ii) For institutional structures in ULU to choose to annul elections that had a high turnout and refuse to release the results is a completely unjust infringement of the democratic process.
(iii) To take steps to sack the London Student editor in this context with a resolution that fails to specify (i.e. provide evidence for) its accusations, and includes subjective opinions on ‘the quality of journalism’, smacks of punishing those opposed to annulling the elections.
This is not a question of personalities or political allegiances on one side or the other. In my experience of student politics it’s often the case that there are fierce arguments, personalities clash, and people don’t get on. We don’t have to like one another and we might not like how some individuals have approached working with other activists on the left. This is a normal part of politics. It makes it all the more important to work in a principled and democratic way.
From an outsider’s perspective, i.e. someone who is close to both sides in this dispute, I would urge the ULU Senate to see sense, drop the no confidence charge and reveal who received most votes in the election. Indeed, it may well be the case that the candidate who complained about the London Student coverage won.
Surely, it’s time to open the envelope, find out the results and put an end to this farce.