Last week, a number of concerns were raised by the A-Team and the returning officer Andrea Reeves over the way Salient covered the elections. We were alleged to have broken the VUWSA constitution, to the point where it was likely to influence votes.
Salient doesn’t apologise. Whatever your views on the A-Team, it cannot be denied that they were news. When someone credibly alleges that members of the A-Team are racist, it’s news. When the leaders of some of the largest rep groups on campus band together to raise their concerns over A-Team policies, it’s news.
Much of the election was the A-Team acting, or their opponents and opposition reacting to them. No one should be surprised to see that our news coverage focused on them – they were the VUWSA election. And this sort of news about them is something you’re entitled to know when you cast your vote.
The concerns reached fever pitch Sunday the week before, when the A-Team’s campaign manager Jordan Williams threatened me with defamation action if material allegedly defaming members of the A-Team was included in last week’s Salient. In addition, the leader of the A-Team, Lukas Schroeter, explored the possibility of the publications committee prohibiting Salient from being released.
The action was obviously not pursued, and on Monday morning Salient was delivered to you as usual (see page 10 for our reporting of these events). The arguments of the A-Team and the returning officer were that the VUWSA election rules prohibit any person from printing, distributing or delivering anything to influence voters during the election. Salient has always brought Vic students news during election week – we like to think we’re an important source of information for our readers on all things VUWSA. The argument that Salient falls within constitutional limitations on the “conduct of electors and applicants” is new to us, and has chilling implications for your right to know and our obligation to keep you informed.
Salient’s view has always been that this section – important to ensure that candidates don’t exercise undue influence while voting is ongoing – doesn’t prohibit us keeping you up-to-date with news developments, and that the exception in the rules for other things authorised by the Constitution encompasses just about everything we do. The Salient Charter, also incorporated in the Constitution, begins with the following:
1. The Editor shall determine the form and content of Salient with complete freedom from political interference.
2. The Association has the right to expect reasonable coverage of the year’s priority goals. The Editor retains control of the form that this coverage takes.
Salient is – and should be – free to publish literally anything at all, whether during election voting time or otherwise. We hope you, your elected representatives, and those (like the A-Team) who purport to advance the cause of freedom wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our coverage was also mentioned on David Farrar’s kiwiblog. Here Farrar accused Salient of being grossly unfair by carrying an avalanche of negative stories during the period where candidates are banned from being able to publicly respond. While it’s true that the candidates were banned from distributing public statements (Schedule 2, clause 54 of the constitution) we actually allowed all candidates who had negative allegations against them to respond at the time of reporting.
Balance is extremely important in the publication of news articles – particularly so close to an election. Salient’s obligation to keep you informed was tempered by our desire to be fair to all those involved. For every allegation or criticism against a candidate, we sought and printed their response. You heard both sides of the story and should have had the information to help you cast an informed vote.
The events we covered were important to the VUWSA elections, and had we failed to cover them – even if they cast candidates in a negative light – for sake of perceived interpretation of the constitution, we would not have served the public interest. Farrar also makes reference to an opinion piece by Council representative candidate Chris Bishop, which Salient did not publish. This was because the article brought to light that Bishop was involved with the A-Team (in his own words: “having minor involvement in their campaign”) and in my judgment was a partial account, commending the A-Team with sentences like: “It’s the additional things they’ve done that are so impressive,” and “If these guys can organise VUWSA as well as they’ve organised their campaign, then we’re in safe hands,” and “When was the last time you saw candidates publish an alternative budget for the forthcoming year?”). The tone of writing is persuasive, not informative like our news coverage that week – and, as a candidate, Bishop probably would have contravened clause 54(b) himself.
The comments by Farrar are all the more understandable in light of his personal politics, himself a supporter of voluntary student membership and a member of the National party. In a posting made on September 19, Farrar bats for the A-Team – talking up some of their policies, concluding that they are “what may save VUWSA”. Farrar here justifies one of the A-Team’s “most significant” policies – electronic referenda, so that all students on campus can participate in VUWSA decision making – on the basis that it will increase student participation. Farrar overlooks policies by other candidates which also increase participation such us those by Cosgrove, to provide more support to class representation.
Other policies which are beneficial to students, such as free Internet services, clubs support, and universal allowance advocacy (as espoused by Hayward and Cosgrove) are also overlooked. Is that “fair and balanced”?