Should the Students' Union legally protect you from your own online persona?

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. The Students' Union has a duty to protect the student body from the resulting fall-out.

Across the country, students will have embarked on the University Career with Freshers' Weeks that will be unforgettable.

No, really, truly unforgettable.

They might want to forget them, such were the unwise relationships they forged, ill-judged costumes they wore on that pub crawl and general abandon and excess they experienced along with their new-found freedom, but they may not be able to do so very easily.

Firstly there is the problem of their friends. It may be that what goes on on campus, stays on campus, but it also stays on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, you get the picture - and so, unfortunately, did their roommate.

Students are adapting to this documenting of their every move though, and for many the first thing they do on the morning after is to erase as many virtual traces as they can of the night before. They are wise to the potential spread and permanence of their social media shadow.

However, there is another witness to their heady days as students that is there to record everything - Freshers' Week exuberance; the cut and thrust of student politics; triumph and defeat on the sportsfield and the rich tapestry of student life - the student newspaper. Or, as is the case on the campus at York, where I act as an adviser to the media - two student papers, a radio station, a TV station and a magazine.

And York is not unique, most universities will sustain this level of publication. That is a lot of media covering relatively small communities of 15,000 people. By the end of your degree there is a good chance you will have appeared in them in some form.

That might be for something benign, or even positive, an achievement or activity you are proud of. However, sometimes it might be something you would rather forget - student political controversy, misbehaviour by you and your teammates, the excess of the aforementioned Freshers' Week. Sad to say, and I speak from experience, rugby teams are not always the most civilising influence on campus.

If anyone wanted to dig out my misdemeanours though, they would have to excavate a 26-year-old copy of Liverpool Polytechnic's Shout magazine. I think I'm safe.

Today's student media are carved in the stone of web publication though, that is potentially permanent, and searchable. Searchable by employers. Your impassioned speech to fellow students to tear down global capitalism may have well-received in the Union debate, less so when you are looking for employment at a merchant bank. While the photo featuring the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson in full Bullingdon Club regalia has been effectively suppressed by use of copyright, were it to be taken now and slapped on a student newspaper website, it would have much greater power to embarrass for much longer.

One student publication I advise was contacted by an alumnus to raise this very problem. A Google search of his name was pulling up their website and an article where, as a former sabbatical officer, he had been accused of lying by a number of students. He asked that it be removed as he was worried it was affecting his employment prospects. I advised removal, not on ethical grounds in this instance, but because it was libellous and they did not appear to have any proof of lying - an accusation bandied about very often in the cut and thrust of student debate.

While that was a relatively easy call, what of other less clear-cut cases where there is no libel difficulty, but where something potentially damaging is being published?

There is the Data Protection Act 1998, which requires that personal data is not excessive and kept for longer than is necessary, but the journalistic exemption in that Act means students demanding their past be erased have little hope of aid from the DPA.

So is it a case of hard luck for those students embarrassed by their online cuttings? Well, not quite. Most student publications are funded entirely or in part by the Students' Union. The Union, as well as wanting to promote free expression on campus and support a vibrant media community, also has a duty of care to the wider student body. If it continues to support the publication of something which potentially damages the career prospects of an alumnus, that is a potential conflict.

Some students are arguing that the media charters which govern student publications should include a 'right to be forgotten'. How that would work is anyone's guess, if everything were to be deleted after a certain time, then positive achievements would be erased, to students' detriment. If only selected negative stories were to be deleted, who would decide which were to go?

Students' Unions and their media need to get ready to deal with these questions. As people more zealously police their online persona, they will be asked more and more.

Students at the beginning of Manchester University's Freshers Week. Image: Getty
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.