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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle