'Proof in the practice' commentator says of student media watchdog

A media watchdog entity being formed by the University of Otago to monitor contentious student magazine Critic and Radio One should not compromise the independence of the two outlets, a New Zealand media commentator says.

The university is forming a "student media advisory board" since it is now the de facto publisher of Critic and funding backer of Radio One by way of a student levy agreement with the Otago University Students Association.

OUSA is a parent company funding its subsidiary Planet Media Ltd - the backer of Critic and Radio One.

Otago vice-chancellor Prof Harlene Hayne said the advisory board was intended to act as a "critical friend" to student media.

Board members, who would include an independent chairman, "at least one" experienced current or former journalist, and "one or two" academic staff with relevant expertise, would advise on several matters, she said.

These included controversial or sensitive content, to ensure it complied with the law and appropriate standards of media ethics, while also advising about "sound editorial judgement".

Media commentator and former journalist, Associate Prof Jim Tully, of the University of Canterbury, said the student levy agreement to fund OUSA effectively gave the university de facto publishing rights.

It was not surprising the university wanted to put in place some "parameters" about how the student magazine operated and the content it might publish.

Whether that might jeopardise the independence of the student media "would all come down to how, or if it chose, to intervene", he said.

Legitimate questions about independence could be raised if any intervention went "simply beyond issues of consistent bad taste and copyright matters," and began "to use the [student] media as a vehicle for promoting the university or to minimise negative publicity", he said.

Critic editor Joe Stockman said he did not view the advisory board's role as a negative.

"I see it as another tool for us to use to establish whether what we are publishing is on-the-line, or crossing over the line," he said.

While he would always be prepared to listen to advice about controversial content, Mr Stockman said he drew the line at having his independence and editorial right to decide the publication's final content taken away.

"Students need to talk about sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. We also won't shy away from using [profane] language, or pushing the boundaries of bad taste . . . to entertain," he said.

Prof Hayne said the board would be an advisory body only and would not have any power to compel student media to follow its advice.

"However, it is expected that through constructive engagement with the advisory board, student media will be supported to maintain an edgy and sometimes controversial style, while avoiding the publication of material such as that which promotes illegal activity or is libelous," Prof Hayne said.

Prof Tully said the "proof would be in the practice" of how the relationship evolved.

"It sounds like a carefully contrived written statement to mollify undue statements of criticism about its perceived intentions," he said, when asked for comment about the university's statement of intent.

Prof Hayne said the board would also defend the content of Critic, when it generated a "significantly adverse response" when that content was legal and within ethical standards.

There was no requirement for the university to support student media by way of compulsory levies, but it had agreed to so - "for 2012, at least".

"We believe student media can and should play an important role in supporting a vibrant university community,"We not only value Critic for the important role it plays in the university community, it is also a significant training ground for young journalists and broadcasters," she said.

 

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