AUU Board threatens On Dit editorial independence
Words by Felix Eldridge
Last Monday, the AUU Board voted in favour of an amendment to the AUU student media rules regarding the regulation of online content published by On Dit. The amendment gave the AUU the power to remove online articles published by On Dit if the AUU had reasonable grounds to fear successful legal action against it.
The amendment is attached below, with the new text italicised:
“Amend Clause 13.2 The AUU may prevent the distribution of an issue of On Dit Magazine or publication of an online On Dit Magazine content (including, but not limited to, social media posts and articles) if the AUU has reasonable grounds to fear successful legal action may be taken against it should the issue or online content be distributed.”
While this sounds quite reasonable on paper, there are several issues with this amendment and the process in which it was passed.
The very concept of editorial regulation at any level is a matter of great concern to On Dit. Over the years On Dit has gradually lost significant amounts of autonomy and is completely at the mercy of the AUU Board not to impose further regulations. As such, any restrictions of editorial freedom, however reasonable on paper, come as a blow to our independence from the AUU.
On Dit is deeply concerned about the fact that this is the third set of anti-student media reforms passed by the Board in the last 4 years. In 2017, the AUU Board altered the rules so that all print editions have to be approved by the AUU Executive Officer before publication, even if the Executive Officer did not grant such permission before the agreed upon deadlines. In 2019, the Board passed further regulations, preventing editors from making any editorial changes to an AUU President’s column without their express consent, including even minor grammatical changes. While the justification for the most recent changes may seem reasonable to some, it shows a continuing pattern of behaviour to gradually and systematically strip On Dit of its editorial freedoms over a prolonged period, a death by a thousand cuts.
Compounding this, On Dit is troubled by some of the ambiguity present in the motion. It appears that the wording was substantially copied from the existing print regulations for On Dit. Unfortunately the methods of regulating print and online mediums differ considerably and the current proposals do not appear to have been adapted with much thought as to how they would function in practice. Furthermore, the motion does not cite examples or other criteria that need to be met or provide any other form of guidance as to interpretation. There are issues with terms such as ‘distribution’ that seem alien in the context of online articles. There is also ambiguity over who would exercise such a function, whether it would be the General Manger directly or their instructions being passed down to junior staff. The wording does not discount the possibility that the Board itself may have the power to remove an article. Even if some of this ambiguity is clarified during a later meeting, the text within these articles ought to have been written in a way that is clearly unambiguous, especially where defamation is involved. This ambiguity is still likely to cause future issues when it is exercised.
Alarmingly, there was virtually no consultation with stakeholders such as On Dit before this change was brought to the Board. Just the week before, the Student Media Committee (a body consisting of representatives from the Board and both On Dit and Student Radio) had met to discuss other student media reforms being put to the Board. The topic of online regulation was brought up very briefly, with no consensus on what, when, why or even how such reforms should take place, if at all. A senior AUU employee informed the Committee that the regulation of online articles was a complicated process and the two obvious solutions had significant issues. Considering the timing of the proposed amendments, it appears that this advice was not taken into account as of that meeting.
This amendment means one of two things. Either the changes had been in the works for some time and the Board Directors on the Committee deliberately withheld this information from Student Media. Or, based on the few remarks made during the meeting, the Board Directors quickly cobbled together an amendment in less than half a week with the intention of quickly and quietly passing it through the Board without scrutiny. Regardless of whether it was done in a rush without proper consultation, or whether it was deliberately withheld to surprise student media, this reform appears to have been poorly designed.
The methods of passing this amendment were not the end of the concerning behaviour from the AUU Board. The majority of the meeting was held ‘ex camera’, meaning it was theoretically open to visitors. However, they refused to allow any visitors or student media to attend. Now, while this might seem sensible given social distancing requirements brought about by COIVD-19, the offer for On Dit to attend by video link or even to call into the meeting were also refused. If visitors and the media were not allowed in due to the risk of spreading infection, why would the AUU refuse to allow people to call into the meeting instead?
While On Dit views this amendment on its own as a genuine threat to editorial independence from the AUU, we find particularly concerning all of the other contributing factors such as the ambiguous wording, the apparent rushed nature of the motion and the lack of accountability when it was passed.
On Dit attempted to contact AUU President Stella Woo for comment but unfortunately she was unavailable.
Disclaimer: Felix ran as a ‘Unite’ candidate in the 2019 student elections.