An editor has to be heartless, but thoughtful too

My heart skipped a beat or two on Friday afternoon when I learnt online that a participant of a Shark Tales video – a trainee at law firm Clifford Chance – is facing the sack because of comments that he drunkenly made to the Cherwell cameras, fronted by Toby Mather.

Shark Tales isn’t meant to get anyone fired, though its aim – to encourage students to embarrass themselves – can naturally be deduced from the presence of its cameras outside a nightclub at 3am.

As editor of Cherwell last term, I – along with my co-editor – sorted through the video footage before each Shark Tales edition was released deciding what stays, and what goes.

Mostly it’s quite easy. Racism, sexism, serious violence – that sort of thing – is immediately cut out. The perverse ethical effect of this, of course, is to protect students who have said really unpleasant things on camera from the sorts of consequences that have befallen the trainee lawyer, whose offence, if we’re honest, was only to glorify robbing one group of rich people to give to another group of rich people, otherwise known as the legal industry. 

There are in fact multiple cases like the lawyer’s, in which you are faced with content that doesn’t cross clear legal or ethical boundaries but does prompt you, as an editor, to think twice.

The footage with the lawyer had the merit of being hilarious, especially because of his flourish at the end in which he “refuse[d] my consent for this to go on the internet and I will sue you if it goes on.”

It was troublesome for the precise same reason. Legally, we were told that he had no case – consent had been expressed in agreeing to be interviewed for what he knew was a video. But ethically, we had to contemplate the fact that the guy had had a few drinks and sincerely, in a state of sobriety, did not wish for the footage to go online. He sent further emails to that effect.

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The footage was included and the rest, it seems, is history.

The truth is that an editor of a student newspaper is placed, through the simple power of selection, on to a quasi-judicial pedestal that, ideally, a twenty or twenty-one year old shouldn’t be on. But someone has to do it.

Though different editors will make different decisions, recognition of the pastoral role that student societies play means that most student newspaper editors – though they may style themselves as mini Paul Dacres – tend to protect students from the full consequences of their actions.

This article, for instance, named the freshers who had unwisely “blacked up” at a college bop in our print edition. But we decided, given their sincere apologies, that it wasn’t worth hobbling their future career prospects by naming them in the online article.

Similarly student editors have to decide when it’s fair to remove a student’s name from an article that embarrasses them or hurts their reputation. We are frequently asked to do so once the student in question, conscious that a future employer might google their name, starts job hunting.

There’s no easy answer, but the right approach, I think, is to try to judge – without sentimentality – whether the penalty that they claim to be suffering really measures up to the thoughtlessness of whatever actions prompted the article in the first place.  

The more pertinent advice, of course, for most readers who are more likely to be watching or reading Cherwell rather than producing it, is don’t be a moron.