How the NUS ‘No Platform’ Policy became press censorship

Just occasionally it’s important to look at the world outside this lovely little bubble in Oxfordshire. Emboldened by the example of the Leveson Inquiry, Leeds Student Union has put forward a motion to censor its student press, specifically the excellent Leeds Student newspaper. 

In a referendum to be held next week Leeds students will get to decide whether or not their student paper should be allowed to report and interact with the baddies of national life, such as Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who it interviewed last month. The motion should provoke the interest of students nationwide, not just in Leeds, because if the argument against press censorship is lost at that university, it will become more difficult to win at others.

Since its institution in the 90s the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy has been continuously reinterpreted by sabbatical jobsworths to encroach on more and more areas of student life, licensing them to bully student societies and exclude political figures from campus whom they don’t like. The status of student newspapers, the vast majority of which (including the Oxford Student, though not Cherwell) are supported by their student unions, has always been ambiguous but that old hang up students have about ‘free speech’ has for many years kept the student press editorially independent.

Until now. After the Leeds Student published an interview with Griffin the student union has brought forward a motion to formally extend No Platform to the student press. It would prevent the LS from publishing stories about such nasties as Griffin or George Galloway – who is also on the NUS’ list – unless the tone is suitably derogatory, one presumes. As Lucy Snow, the editor of the LS, rightly comments, this would amount to “nothing short of censorship”.

The Griffin interview is very short, and generally unremarkable. Towards the end Griffin says some pretty unpleasant things about gay people. After the transcript there is a staunch defence of publishing the article: ‘Nick Griffin is an elected MEP, and three years ago in Leeds, a BNP candidate was also elected to the European Parliament. Whilst the views of this party may be unsavoury to say the least, whether we like it or not, they have sufficient local support to return elected members into political office.’

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I happen to agree with that; in my view the best way to deal with extremists is not to marginalise them, but to let them undo themselves under the full glare of the public eye. Does anyone seriously believe that Griffin’s appearance of Question Time in 2009 had anything but a crushing effect on the BNP? Since then the party has performed absymally at local and national elections, it has suffered a leadership crisis and lost an MEP. 

But you don’t have to agree with me to detest the Leeds Union motion. Because the real question is who decides? Seemingly lacking any sense of irony, by infringing on the editorial independence of the LS the student union has itself embraced Griffin’s fascistic nonsense. As part of Cherwell’s editorial team I suppose I should be very excited by the student union’s attempt to castrate its newspaper. Embarrassingly, the LS has been winning more national awards than Cherwell in recent years. We would love to see a competitor emasculated by censorship.

Except not really, because it sets a dodgy precedent for other student unions around the country to fiddle with their own papers. The problem comes when assumptions lose their potency. Pre-Leveson, that assumption with regards to the press – national, regional and student – had always been that free speech is sacred. And though the student rags are small beer next to the national publications, we should be in no doubt that the culture change Leveson has provoked will empower the NUS at the expense of the student press in the same way that it will empower government at the expense of the national newspapers. 

Should Leeds Student Union approve next week’s motion, I would suggest their obvious course of action would be to stuff ’em and go independent. It works for Cherwell and Varsity, in Cambridge. Even if going independent involved significant downsizing the LS should ask itself: who would want to read a paper that patronises its readership by censoring offensive content?

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A final thought; it is no doubt the leftish constituent of the NUS that is pushing No Platform down our throats. How tragic it is, given the debt free societies owe to the progressive Left, that a movement with such a noble history should now turn its energies to stifling the printed word. How hollow and insecure it must be for it to shy away from the debates it once dominated. At a time when the NUS is already losing battles on several fronts, it would do well to stop doing Nick Griffin’s job for him.