The UK is independent – now and always

A few former editors have gone to the media to accuse the Universiteitskrant (UK) of censorship. They also say they were fired because of their critical stance. The UK editorial staff staunchly disagrees with this. ‘The UK’s editorial independence is not at risk.’
By the UK editorial staff

Over the past few days, several media outlets (including Dagblad van het Noorden, RTV Noord, and De Volkskrant) have published stories about one UK editor that was fired and another whose contract hasn’t been extended.

In these pieces, the editors claim they were let go because they were (too) critical in the way they wrote about things that were going on at the RUG, and that the UK suffers from (self-)censorship and pressure from on high to change, tone down, or simply not write certain articles.

Let us, as editors, be very clear about this: there is no censorship, nor is the editorial staff subject to pressure from ‘on high’ or ‘bans’.

The editorial staff is aware that journalism in a university environment can lead to tensions; it is difficult and complex. But that doesn’t mean we are a mouthpiece for the university. The editorial staff is also backed up by the UK’s properly enshrined, statutorily guaranteed journalistic independence. That independence is not at risk.

It’s true that both editors were let go. But it wasn’t because they were supposedly (too) critical. Rather, they were let go because their actions led to a breach of confidence and a poor working relationship at the UK.

What happened?

Each editor-in-chief makes sure that their editors meticulously stick to proper journalistic practices. Because they have the final responsibility, they also have the authority to intervene when they think that meticulousness is not being observed.

This happened a few times during late 2016 and early 2017. It concerned suggestive headlines (adjectives that added unnecessary ‘overtones’ to a story), fact and opinion being used interchangeably (‘Facts are sacred, comment is free’), a story presented from only one side (where A accuses B, but B doesn’t get the chance to defend themselves), or unbalanced stories (A gets paragraphs, B a single line).

The conflict intensified due to one particular incident. In February, one of the editors reconstructed part of a private university council meeting about Yantai. He had heard parts of the meeting and confirmed what he heard with anonymous sources. Afterwards, the chair of the university council phoned to say that this reconstruction was incorrect. Subsequently, the article was changed.

Another example: in late 2016, one of the editors wrote ‘RUG in talks with controversial Huawei (the Chinese telecom company). As the article didn’t justify the use of the word ‘controversial’, the headline was changed: ‘RUG in talks in Huawei”.

No prize

These kinds of actions don’t really win us any prizes. To prevent further discussions about things such as these, we have reached some clear agreements.
But should these changes be considered ‘censorship’, an overblown and charged word?

Last year, the matter was put before the editorial board, an advisory body serving the UK, which can and should decide on such matters (this was completely in line with our statutes). They looked at the case and decided there had been no censorship.

The editors involved didn’t just ignore this decision, but they also accused their own editorial board of bias.

After this the UK’s foundation board, once again in line with the statutes, asked a so-called binding-advice committee (an independent committee put together just for the occasion) to look into the matter.

For this committee, both the involved editors and the editor-in-chief were each allowed to appoint one representative. Rimmer Mulder, former editor-in-chief at the Leeuwarder Courant, chaired the committee. Mulder was also approved by the editors involved.

‘Properly substantiated’

The binding-advice committee recently issued the following decision: ‘The editorial members have made this accusation (of censorship) public and repeated it […]. This only emphasises the demand to properly substantiate the allegation , and they (the editors) have not succeeded in doing this.’

It also came out that the editors involved had been secretly recording numerous conversations (regular work meetings, editorial meetings, performance reviews, phone conversations, etc.), with the intention of finding ‘proof’ of censorship.

The UK’s editorial staff, the editorial board, and the foundation board were shocked by these actions. Disagreements, hearty discussions, even butting heads – all these things are fine. But to systematically and secretly record conversations over an extended period of time, that crosses a line.

The binding-advice committee also said the involved editors’ actions were ‘outrageous and dishonest’. And: ‘The committee has not found sufficient reason to justify the editorial members’ actions in going so far as to record conversations.’

Secretly

Nevertheless, the editors involved maintain that censorship was taking place and that their actions (secretly recording conversations, publicly accusing others without any basis in fact) were justified.

The Universiteitskrant’s statutes, as well as the committee’s decisions based on these statutes, exist for a reason. Together, they guarantee editorial independence. No one can circumvent these statutes with impunity: neither the board of directors (thankfully), the foundation board, the editor-in-chief, nor individual editors.

These statutes were followed meticulously, which led to the binding-advice committee’s decision. And we are sticking to this decision. It is striking that the editors involved ignored decisions based on the statutes and maintained that they were right.

What happens now?

In its advice, the binding-advice committee says that the Universiteitskrant operates ‘in guaranteed independence concerning everything regarding the university’. Simultaneously, the Universiteitskrant is part of that same university, and ‘that leads to a certain tension’.

The editors involved feel this means that the UK accepts self-censorship. This is absolutely untrue. The tension consists of the following: The UK is aware that the board of directors is not always happy with the articles we write. But that can never mean that we would change these articles, or even refrain from publishing them at all.

It’s true that over the past few months, we’ve started going into a new direction. We’re trying to reach a wider audience by writing ‘lighter’ pieces about the quality of exam halls or the unsafe traffic situation at the Eikenlaan. But that does not mean we’ve become a school paper or that we’ll no longer write about ‘Yantai’, work pressure, or fraud. We are still a watch dog.

The Universiteitskrant is independent, critical, and honest. The editorial staff decide what is important and relevant, and what we write about. We will continue to do so. Meticulously, and without anyone telling us what to do.

If you have any questions or would like to have something explained, please call or email us: uk@rug.nl / 050 – 3636700

The editorial staff of the Universiteitskrant Groningen

Nederlands

29 November 2017