Yesterday, my face was in the Independent. University College London, where I study French and German, threatened me and the other journalists who work with me on the College’s student news site, Pi Media, with dismissal from the College and court proceedings, because we were going to publish a public interest story they didn’t much like. You can read the Independent’s piece here.
The original news piece they were angry about was, in essence, a declaration of sources. It’s been edited to comply with UCL’s demand that the threat to publish documents be removed, but the gist of it is still there. Pi Media had accessed and originally intended to publish the contents. However following a meeting with UCL Vice Provost Operations Rex Knight, I had to sign a letter stating Pi Media would not publish the documents’ contents, and if we did, anyone involved could face dismissal from the College or court proceedings. All copies of the documents were to be deleted. I cannot disclose what was in them.
UCL has now twice denied that the threat was made, both to the Independent, and in a statement published on their website yesterday. I want to use this post to respond to their statement in full, and clear up UCL’s blatant distortion of the truth.
“UCL would like to make clear that no disciplinary action has been taken and no student threatened with expulsion after accessing confidential information.”
Yes, fortunately no disciplinary action has been taken against me or any other member of Pi Media, and I don’t imagine it will be, as we have complied with UCL’s demands and deleted all copies of the documents. However I don’t understand how UCL has the audacity to claim no-one was threatened with expulsion when the words “dismissal without notice” were delivered to me in writing, and the UCLU representative who mediated the conflict repeatedly told me that my academic career was in danger based on information he had received from UCL.
“At no point in either the letter sent to Ms Pinnington or in her meeting with Mr Knight was there any suggestion of expulsion.”
I have copies.
“When Ms Pinnington met with Mr Knight, he made clear that he or Mr Grainger would be willing to be interviewed by Pi Media and that the interview questions could draw on material that had been accessed. It is therefore surprising that UCL has been accused of attempting to censor the student press.”
What he actually said was something like, “I can’t make you unread what you already know,” before saying that if we were to interview him or Grainger we could touch on the issues raised by the documents, but couldn’t explicitly cite their contents. Telling a student paper they cannot publish one thing, and then offering them something that’s better for your PR, is still censorious. The only thing that’s surprising here is that Rex Knight doesn’t know what censorship is.
To interview Rex Knight and Andrew Grainger about rents, conditions in halls, the closure of the Bloomsbury Theatre, the lack of teaching space on campus, and the dubious ethics of UCL East, would be useful if we didn’t already know exactly what they were going to say. Look at how UCL has responded to requests for comment on the rent strike time and time again; it’s the exact same phrase trotted out for every single paper, revealing no new information and answering none of the big questions. To produce that kind of article that allows UCL to trot out the party line and isn’t able to question it, even though we know things that shed more light on the issues, is not journalism. That is PR. I’m not interested in doing PR for an institution that values what I stand for so remarkably little.
“Any suggestion that UCL’s desire to protect confidential information is related to the annual accommodation surplus is completely false.”
The information contained within the documents accessed by Pi Media concerned more than accommodation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the prospect of rent strikers taking information to the press had contributed to the heavy-handedness of the response.
“We are concerned about the potential breach of confidential information as this may contain commercially sensitive files relating to new developments. A leak could compromise these projects, jeopardising our ability to provide affordable accommodation for future generations of students.”
Let’s be honest, UCL is concerned about the breach of confidential information because they want to protect their reputation. It’s worked out well for them.
Finally, the idea that UCL provides affordable accommodation for any of its students is laughable. When I arrived at UCL I was in receipt of a £3000 bursary from the College to help me pay maintenance costs, and received the maximum amount of student loan. This covered my rent, but a girl needs to eat and get the bus sometimes. If you think the rent at UCL is affordable, you are living in a fantasy world.