Cian Carton looks at the difficulty facing newspaper editors in getting stories to print.

Journalists often run a gauntlet in order to break stories. When they are reporting, or making allegations based on fact, there is always a risk that individuals and organisations will be unhappy with their claims. However, feelings must be separated from the truth. Two recent examples highlight the difficulty of getting a paper published while under such circumstances.

The University of Limerick (UL) filed proceedings in the High Court on Wednesday, 30th September against Iconic Newspapers, which trades as the Limerick Leader, and Alan English, editor of the paper. The case arises out of a report the newspaper published regarding allegations made against the university by two of its suspended employees.

The Irish Times reported that UL asked the paper to “correct the record and apologise in order to protect the university’s excellent reputation.” When it refused, legal proceedings were instituted. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has also become involved in the dispute. It called on UL to withdraw its legal action and seek redress with the Press Council of Ireland and the Press Ombudsman, should it wish to do so in a non-legal manner.

The NUJ released a statement on the matter, in which Séamus Dooley, its Irish Secretary, said that “It is regrettable that a university with a widely-respected journalism faculty should effectively seek to derecognise the equally-respected dispute resolution mechanism established by the newspaper industry. This is a heavy-handed approach which is unnecessary and sets a dangerous precedent for an academic institution. Libel actions are costly and can threaten the very existence of newspapers.” He further stated that UL “has the option of making a complaint against the newspaper, albeit in a less threatening and intimidating manner than a High Court action”, by way of the Press Council of Ireland.

The manner in which UL are handling the situation is a focal point of this debate. A High Court action for defamation, along with two injunctions that it is seeking, will quickly see the legal bill run into the thousands. The sticking point is that it is a public institution, so its legal bill will ultimately be footed by the taxpayer. Niall Collins, a local Fianna Fáil TD, made this point while speaking under parliamentary privilege in the Dáil.

This dispute, along with defamation actions in general, requires a balancing act of the rights of those involved. UL is entitled to seek legal redress if its reputation has been harmed in the eyes of reasonable members of society. If it is vindicated, the cost issue could be overlooked, perhaps. At the same time, allegations of financial mismanagement within a state-funded university is a matter inherently within the public interest, and journalists must be able to investigate such a claim.

While the Limerick Leader was able to publish its story, some newspapers are unable to make it that far. In England, the Guardian reported how Sussex University Students’ Union (USSU) had seized copies of the first edition of the campus newspaper, the Badger, and suspended its editor, on the basis that it may have been about to publish a defamatory article and failed to get it signed off by the Union.

The decision came on the back of a long running dispute in the university, which began in 2013 after a student protest saw five students suspended from the university. The five students, who became known as the Farthing Five, were banned from college for taking part in an occupied protest against the “the marketisation of higher education” at Sussex, after the university planned to outsource campus services. An online petition to re-instate the students generated thousands of signatures, and attracted support from John McDonnell, the local Labour MP.

The five students were awarded over £2,000 each after the university’s ombudsman concluded the university had taken extreme action to deal with the situation, which was unjustified and “politically motivated”. The Huffington Post had previously reported how the university had spent over £100,000 on legal fees in the disciplinary actions it brought against the five.

As part of the first issue of this year’s paper, the Badger was set to run a story on the decision of Michael Farthing, the university’s ex-Vice-Chancellor, to quit his role. Farthing had been heavily involved in the dispute, and was the one who wrote to the students to inform them of their suspension back in 2013. As part of the story, the paper was about to report on the fact that a former student had brought legal proceedings, which are ongoing, against the university.

The Badger had already sought legal advice over its article, and claimed it was a good story. That did not stop it from being pulled, though. The paper was eventually released, and with the article cut out of every copy. However, the most fascinating piece from this news story comes from the disclosure of the relationship between the students’ union and its newspaper, from a statement released by USSU on the matter. It has since been taken down from its website, but has been quoted in reports online.

USSU said that “each issue of The Badger has to be signed off by a Students’ Union representative before it is sent to print to ensure it complies with relevant legislation and to avoid the threat of litigation. This ensures The Badger is operating within the law and protects the Union and student journalists from potentially costly legal cases as the Union is the publisher of The Badger.”

Therefore, the Badger is not editorially independent. Unless the editor has the final say, a newspaper is not editorially independent, no matter what is said. USSU’s defence is on legal grounds. If the paper is sued, they have to pay the legal fees. That is understandable. However, it has been noted that the Badger’s editor is a paid USSU position. Surely the editor is in a better position to judge what might be defamatory rather than a representative from a Students’ Union, especially given the fact he went and sought independent legal advice on the issue?

These are merely two recent instances which highlight the challenges reporters face to get a story to print while under pressure. Journalists play a vital role in bring information to the public, whether that be the public at large, or students on a campus. Outside forces attempting to place restrictions upon them, especially those without legal authority, should be questioned.

Author: Cian Carton