For better or worse, I’m known around town as a journalist who reports on the Oxford Union – something I’ve done for both Cherwell and national newspapers over the last two years. Now, before I leave the country on my year abroad (putting as much distance between myself and the historic debating society as possible) I wanted to write a bit about my experiences of reporting there.
The Union’s place within Oxford is interesting. An initially inconspicuous gothic building in the town centre, some students manage to do their entire degrees without setting foot in it. Maybe they’re put off by the £300 life membership fee or avoid it for ideological reasons. Maybe joining never even occurred to them. But knowingly or unknowingly, they live alongside several thousand current students who own a life membership and others – like 6 former Prime Ministers – for whom a place on the Union’s committee is a defining part of their time at Oxford.
Typically, Union committee members (“hacks”) are held in some level of reverence or disdain by other students. My friends in college, who seem bored by the Union’s very existence, often ask me how and why I have the will to report on these people. Let’s start with “how”, because there are a number of tricks to the trade…
- Be available: any aspiring Union reporter should live on Facebook Messenger and be prepared to put their evening on hold to hear the latest gossip if necessary. Most hacks are so self-obsessed that they’ll give you a lot of information if you’re patient enough to listen. That said, it’s always worth having multiple sources as a means of cross-referencing, to help distinguish the facts from the half-truths and self-serving agendas.
- Read the Union’s atrociously dull Standing Orders (read them and understand them!): seeing as the majority of recent committee dramas have been driven by “infringements” of these regularly-updated constitutional clauses, it’s worth having working knowledge. One of my more down-to-earth sources recently told me: “this entire year in union politics is built on hacks not knowing rules” and it’s true; the constitution seems to exist less as a foundation for running the society than as a means for angsty twenty-year-olds to perpetually screw each other over. So, with political prospects pivoting on the contents of this immense PDF document, paying attention to its language in your reporting will do wonders for the Union’s perceptions of your competence – and, in turn, how much committee is likely to tell you.
- Live in the buildings: I can’t stress this one enough. Making yourself part of the scenery is important, not only so people can sidle up and slip you secrets, but because it’s amazing how much you can observe about the place just by sitting in it. Also, as it stands, committee doesn’t seem to have addressed the fact that the walls are very thin, and their conversations are consequently very audible. Only last week I was working in the Union, completely minding my own business, when I suddenly became privy to an officer’s frenzied attempts to write a speech using ChatGPT after Peter Tatchell pulled out of the pride debate. And sometimes you learn things which are really interesting…
Beyond these ground rules, dress well and speak politely; apologise profusely for covering stories the hacks would rather you didn’t (while covering them anyway), and make sure your caffeine dependency is slightly more visible than theirs (they’ll respect it). It’s really just a cultivated way of putting your sources at ease, by looking as if you could almost be one of them…
Well, as someone who spends most of the year running around town in Barbour jacket with a non-stop rota of coffees, there’s certainly a world in which I might have been a hack – and the same could actually be said for several of my old colleagues at Cherwell. But as it is, I like writing a little bit too much, which led me to the realisation that demographic overlap and the ability to think like a hack might be helpful when trying to report on them.
But why would anyone want to spend their time in this way? My answer here is ever-evolving, and my relationship with the Union is complex. For my first term in Oxford, I didn’t make it to a single event and bought a membership because I wanted to use the library. (I memorably got lost when I was trying to find the place and had to ask Michael – the then-Librarian – if he happened to know the way. Fortunately he did, although I had no clue who he was.) However, a week later I found myself reporting on his landslide election victory and in Hilary 2022 I started a writing column for The Oxford Blue on the weekly chamber debates. The real fun had started.
Now, every term the Union puts out a marginally updated version of its “How to get involved” guide for any fresher who might be tempted to join committee. If this had been better advertised, I might have made the requisite number of speeches in time to sell my soul and run for election, having been thoroughly taken in by the white-tie extravaganzas I’d witnessed from the press bench every Thursday. As it was, however, I found out more about the practicalities of being on committee when a series of articles called The Union As It Is fell across my desk for editing.
All of this happened in the run up to HT22 elections, and if you weren’t in Oxford at that point, it’s worth reading up on your Union history. After the results were announced, allegations of misconduct on committee sent the Union into a period of higher-than-average turmoil, which only concluded with Ahmad Nawaz’s loss of the Presidency in MT22.
This largely explains why I stuck around so long: for the few members of the student press and the Union who were made aware of said allegations upfront, the captivating, horrible, and educational nine-month build-up to what ultimately happened was difficult to escape.
It was also an opportunity to learn a lot about journalism: the news team covering the Union in TT22/MT22 handled everything from source protection and police reports to the guidelines for reporting on sexual assault allegations.
I also learnt the technicalities of getting people “on record”. In fact, since my article “Authoritarian and Impulsive: Union officers speak out against Ahmad Nawaz as members prepare to vote” was published, I’ve quite regularly been asked why I included so many named quotes from members of committee, given that the Union Standing Orders explicitly prohibit them from speaking to the press without presidential approval.
Well, to answer quite simply, I was up to eyes in “senior union sources” by that point last Michaelmas, and frankly sick of committee members who expected to hide behind student journalists and let the papers do their dirty work for them.
If they had strong opinions about the Michaelmas president, our editorial position at the time was that they should put their names to it. Subsequently, my article has been described as “groundbreaking” and “kingmaking”. Personally, I just hope it sets a precedent for Union officials being a little less spineless.
I still take a dim view of those who tried to retract their comments after knowingly providing them on record; but fortunately, a number of committee’s smarter individuals reached the sound conclusion that it would be good to put free speech into action, for a change, and the rest is history.
Setting the woes of the Nawaz episode aside, however, most of committee’s routine interactions with the student press are downright weird.
Some of them are terrified: A hack strutting pompously around the bar in full tartan once froze on seeing me. “Oh no! It’s a member of the press!” he squealed, his voice rising half an octave, before scarpering upstairs faster than I’d thought possible.
On another occasion, a dejected-looking officer wolfing down his Maccies in the courtyard replied to my offhand “hello” with an imperilled cry of “No comment!”
Then there are the ones who try to be charming: some hacks have invited me to taste hummus, review their biohazardous boats, skip queues, or drink unlimited free wine in the Union bar. Most of them exuded ulterior motives and were routinely atrocious at hiding their misguided expectations of favourable coverage in return.
Still, things seem to have come full circle in my time here: last year there was a phase where most of committee didn’t refer to me by name, but merely as “press” or, if I was lucky, “a reporter from Cherwell”. These days (I was alarmed to discover) I only need to walk into the buildings and mention that I could do with a coffee before a seccie runs off to get me one, while I bemusedly try to remember who they are and wonder if I’m losing my touch. I don’t know which of these instances is less embarrassing.
But the hacks you genuinely warm towards are undoubtedly the most problematic. Luckily for me, most of these individuals are now “semi-retired”, “hack-adjacent”, or cleanly out the other side, but the overlap between social and semi-professional settings in a place as small as Oxford is never without difficulties. Unsurprisingly, cordial relationships can sour when the time comes for you to write something less-than-complementary about your previously co-conspiratorial coffee buddy. One moment you’ll be photoshopping the doomed hack’s face over a picture of the debate chamber to create an image for your article, telling yourself it’s purely work and that they’ll understand; the next moment they’re phoning you up in tears, threatening you, or reminding you how much fun you had at their party a week earlier.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid situations like this is not to get too close to committee, period. Working for a publication with a strict editorial policy will help with this, and sometimes you can also rely on a tedious Director of Press to kill the vibe. The worst of these have completely aired me, making my job ten times harder by going AWOL when I needed urgent statements on the Union’s behalf. Others have provided me with flimsy laminated press passes or snazzy personalised lanyards in turn, while being equally sluggish at issuing any “official” information. The current one had his personality beautifully summed up in The New Statesman last week, and there’s nothing more for me to add there at present (but please can I bum a cigarette sometime?).
Lacklustre DoPs or otherwise, good sources can obviously help to bridge the gap by supplying information in a timely manner, but the more cards you hold in a place like the Union, the more potential you have to become a political actor yourself, instead of a neutral reporter. This can be dangerous – while it may appeal to any personal desire for a power-trip, it’s rarely conducive to good journalism.
Indeed, the moment hacks start asking you to campaign manage them (no, thank you!) or asking you to spill the tea on their potential opponents and running-mates in exchange for drinks (yikes), then you know you’re in trouble.
Flattering though it is to know you live rent-free in some hacks’ heads, as they worry about how many files of dirt you might have on them – it can sometimes backfire on you. For example, I was very nearly denied entry to a recent Union event when it transpired that someone “on high” had tried to ban me from the chamber, allegedly out of fear for my paranoia-inspiring journalistic intent. Thank goodness a couple of sensible committee members reversed this, reaching the sound judgement that – even in circumstances as sticky as last week’s – such action was, perhaps, a little steep.
Strange relationships aside, I wouldn’t change my experience of reporting on the Union for anything. Helping to oversee the John Evelyn gossip column in Michaelmas was definitely a highlight, and although these anonymous features in the back of every Cherwell print should be consumed with a large pinch of salt, a good Jevelyn will sometimes include some helpful pieces of Union intrigue for the editors’ eyes only – sometimes to be removed at their discretion.
Now, in the spirit of this, I believe the Union can expect a typically tempestuous time ahead. I’ve heard enough about the gathering storm-clouds to suspect that – while the leaking roof might make it through Michaelmas in good shape – the same might not be said for certain committee members. Anyone who’s still in Oxford and feels inclined to take up Union Watch can expect as much of an interesting time as I’ve had.