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Mar 5, 2009

Journalistic ethics, UTS and the Sydney Writers’ Festival

A nasty fuss has sprung up around the Sydney Writers' Festival and New South Wales' leading journalism school, writes Margaret Simons.

A nasty fuss has sprung up around the Sydney Writers’ Festival and New South Wales’ leading journalism school, with the University of Technology, Sydney being accused of apologising inappropriately for what amounts to students’ vigorous reporting.

It might seem like a storm in a teacup to most of us, but for student journalists encouraged to believe in the independence of the media, it is taking on the characteristics of a test case.

It also offers an example of just how uncomfortable journalism can be for institutions — including universities.

It all began last year. For some time, journalism students from Sydney’s University of Technology have produced a newspaper. Festival News, that covers events at the Writers’ Festival and is handed out for free. The publication is paid for by UTS, and includes a disclaimer that views expressed are not those of the Festival.

Last year, the back page of one issue of the paper included this rather irreverent piece of gossip about the Premier, Morris Iemma and the Minister for the Arts, Frank Sartor. The authors included Matthew Knott, who was runner up in the student Walkley Awards and won best story in the Journalism Education Awards. He also writes for The Australian newspaper. The chief of staff of the paper, Amelia Marshall, has since worked at the ABC.

The reaction from the festival organisers was swift and furious. Artistic Director Wendy Were wrote to the editor of the paper, Jenna Price, claiming it was “more like a trashy magazine, filled with gossip and sniping”. “Much of the content is highly inappropriate for a publication of this nature and we cannot sanction its distribution. I have asked for it to be removed from the Wharf.”

The imbroglio made it on to Lateline with the students concerned alleging censorship. Papers were impounded and the students were prevented from distributing them.

Yet now the Sydney Writers’ Festival site carries an apology from the Dean of the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Theo van Leeuwen, saying, effectively, that none of this happened, and that there was no attempt by the Festival to suppress the publication — claims that the students concerned say are simply untrue.

Several of the former students — some of whom are now working in mainstream media organisations — have written to van Leeuwen in strong terms about journalistic ethics and the importance of independence and the staff of the journalism faculty are said to be furious at the apparent undermining of the values they try and teach.

Professor van Leeuwen told Crikey this morning that his apology had been an attempt to overcome the controversy from last year so that UTS and the festival could move forward.

The paper had last year taken a “different tack”, he said, and had sought to cover controversial issues “as newspapers do”. This had caused a reaction from Were.

Van Leeuwen said he was trying to satisfy three interest groups: the festival, the university’s creative writing students, and the journalism students. The creative writing area had been upset by the impact on the relationship with the Writers’ Festival and wanted relationships to improve.

“So to try and move forward I tried to take the blame upon myself, and obviously didn’t do it very effectively, so now I am trying to find a way forward from this that satisfies everyone,” he said.

He was not prepared to discuss whether the apology he had made was in fact true.

A spokesman for the festival said the Director, Sandra Yates, could not be contacted for comment this morning, but he said that the apology had been written by van Leeuwen, not by festival representatives.

  • Declaration: Margaret Simons is a member of the UTS Faculty for Arts and Social Sciences Advisory Committee.

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18 thoughts on “Journalistic ethics, UTS and the Sydney Writers’ Festival

  1. sunbad

    The Festival News is hardly Quadrant, Margaret. While journalistic freedom is one thing, the tone of the article managed to be – at least for me and most of the people I know who read it – smug, snide and silly at once (and again, having read the link). Most punters at the Festival wouldn’t know or care about the politics of arts funding in NSW, and many I spoke to were bewildered by the tone and the motivation of the piece. It’s hard enough for the arts in NSW, even for marque events like the Writers’ Festival, to get funding – most budgets being cut or not being indexed. Everybody, whether in the arts or not, knows what Frank Sartor is like, and Iemma was hardly Bob Carr – in fact, he went to the last election as anything but. What, exactly, then, was the point of the article? The Festival News was not and never was hard news – it was an opportunity for many students to cut their teeth reporting and an opportunity to meet and interview authors, who generously gave their time and thoughts to often very inexperienced – albeit enthusiastic – young people, who, like me when I worked on the Festival News, would often forget to file or turn up for interviews. With this mean-spirited little spray, many authors thought twice about speaking to Festival News reporters for fear of similar being done to them. Resulting, naturally, in no content – unless you count the hysterical grandstanding of more experienced individuals who, instead of looking after the project while its founder and regular editor was very ill, somehow managed to offend everyone involved – and perplex everyone else. The Festival News managed to go many many years without any controversy and with much goodwill under Sandy Symons, and in one go – a sustained, shrill, totally out of proportion way – Jenna and Wendy managed to jeopardise that relationship – just as they did the Festival’s relationships with the Government and its sponsors. There’s a number of other journalism schools that would be happy to…

  2. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas #2

    When did the natural idealism of youth become understood as
    “….. borne out of a desperate, undergraduate need for controversy …”.
    I suppose one has to lose it to misunderstand it.
    (quote from sunbad comment)

  3. John Dale

    At the heart of this dispute lie differences of opinion over the nature of the brief for Festival News. For the past 4 years the hard-working Sandy Symonds managed the editorial team at UTS and produced an informative colour broadsheet which reported on books and local and international writers, and ideas.

    Last year, while Sandy was on sick leave Festival News took a far different and more confrontational approach to writers, politicians and the festival. (See their article on Michelle de Krester). Festival News is not the Washington Post, which is not to say it can’t run negative articles on the Festival organisation from time to time, but predominantly its readers want to read about writers and books.

    Like many other festival goers I have spoken to, I look forward to reading Festival News when it returns in 2009 under Sandy Symonds’ thoughtful stewardship.

  4. sunbad

    PPS – Okay, one last thing: if papers were confiscated, my understanding was that it wasn’t sanctioned officially. In fact, the snide nastiness and disparaging tone of the Write Wing page ridiculed and offended many volunteers, sponsors and punters – most people I know stopped reading the paper not because it dared to be independent, but because it was so relentlessly mean-spirited: like the Heathers had taken over the spell-checker. The joy of previous years was totally missing – subbed by a litany of complaints about everything, from the food, to the absence of ATMs, to the weather, to the stupidity of old dears… one wonders how they managed to fit anything in about the writers! Insulting your readership – let alone your hosts – is hardly the way to encourage circulation, unless…

    Volunteers may have refused to cooperate, but that was their right, given that they were volunteers, not paid by the Festival, and didn’t have to help what you acknowledge is an independent publication, especially at the expense of their Festival duties. It wasn’t just about the Sartor episode – it had been building for most of the Festival, and even if Wendy Were did allow distribution the next day, she could hardly be on top of every encounter between geed-up students and volunteers, what with, the, uh, all those other events and uh, writers and audiences attending them… how many people did she have to manage, and how many did Jenna and Wendy? Should we excoriate them for every sub error or inaccuracy, or is their inclusion independent news?

    Of course, UTS Journalism students never ever lie, fib, or even exaggerate a bit, thanks to their impeccable ethics. Nor confuse volunteers with Festival “officials” – of which there’d be less than 20, if you counted board members. Which is why it seems from Amelia Marshall’s email there was no need to confirm who those “officials” – who would have been wearing ID – were.

    Only evil yarts administrators dissemble and misquote, huh?

  5. sunad

    Actually, Doctor Harvey, I wasn’t referring to the students when I used the phrases “desperate” and “undergraduate”…

  6. Paddy Cannon

    But as journalists, our most important asset is our integrity. All students at UTS undertake a compulsory subject teaching them all the legal aspects that surround journalism, but more importantly, from day one we are all taught to report in adherence to the Media Alliance Code of Ethics, which teaches us that the mark of an ethical journalist is to report fairly and accurately, and never to advertise or bow to commercial considerations. This is how we create a relationship of trust with our audience, and it’s what sets us aside from marketers and publicists. We would have failed in our duty to the public if we had released a publication that toed the line of the corporate and government sponsors. The claim that the Festival tried to censor us is substantiated by the fact that the Festival organiser’s impounded the publication following a perceived criticism of a government sponsor.

    Furthermore the insinuations that we were reporting inaccurately, and producing a trashy magazine, as Dr Were claimed, are beyond offensive to us, they are injurious to our reputations. To then apologise for the quality of the news reportage is to bring into question the integrity and professionalism of Wendy Bacon and Jenna Price, who oversaw the Festival News, which is totally unacceptable. Their reputation within the industry, and amongst their peers, speaks for itself. I’m certain Jenna Price would not begrudge me furthering that an attack on Wendy Bacon’s professionalism in particular would be met with disbelief by journalists and academics across the country.

  7. mj

    “I WANT SPARKS to fly. I want people to argue. I want people to be actively stirred by what they witness. I want them to laugh, too. I want them to be entertained, but I don’t want them passive. I want them stirred.” This is the new director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Wendy Were… (SMH 14 April 2007)

    She got what she wanted and still complains. And while we’re at it could someone point out to Sharon Verghis that this sort of writing:

    “Wendy Were lives a life of the mind, is immersed in a world where ideas and words and abstract issues – social justice, feminism, racism, creativity – are key currency. But there’s another, private world she moves in, and it’s the kingdom of animals. Here, all things winged, furred, shelled and clawed hold sway.” (SMH 10 May 2008)

    is perhaps one of the reasons newspaper circulation is in the pan (apart from changing technology eroding traditional revenue streams and gatekeeping structures). Christ, and I thought twitter was bad…

  8. Dr Harvey M Tarvydas #3

    “He was not prepared to discuss whether the apology he had made was in fact true.”

    Is it genuine? Facts, truth of facts given in explaination.
    First prove that human psychology is true or a fact.
    While we wait , is it genuine?
    Sounds like it to me as it is loaded with some right psychological signals.

  9. Mary Garden

    Bizarre story! Tks Margaret.

    However, I got a bit confused by ‘This had caused a reaction from Were.’ I thought ‘who, what ,where is ‘”Were” ‘. But I’ve found it’s actually Dr Wendy Were so Dr Were, after the first mention (as you did with
    Professor ) would lessen confusion.

    Also, ‘He was not prepared to discuss whether the apology he had made was in fact true’. An apology can not be true or false; it can be genuine or insincere. In this case, clearly insincere as Professor van Leeuwen admits he made the apology to try and keep the peace. How bizarre. Appeasement usually leads to more conflict, as clearly is happening in this case.

    But the papers were impounded, so clearly he is not telling the truth. The journalism faculty has every right to be furious. Maybe the Professor should sit in on some of their ethics classes.

    BTW it would be good to get the actual words of his ‘apology’.

  10. Mary Garden

    Bizarre story! Tks Margaret.

    However, I got a bit confused by ‘This had caused a reaction from Were.’ I thought ‘who, what ,where is ‘”Were” ‘. But I’ve found it’s actually Dr Wendy Were so Dr Were, after the first mention (as you did with
    Professor ) would lessen confusion.

    Also, ‘He was not prepared to discuss whether the apology he had made was in fact true’. An apology can not be true or false; it can be genuine or insincere. In this case, clearly insincere as Professor van Leeuwen admits he made the apology to try and keep the peace. How bizarre. Appeasement usually leads to more conflict, as clearly is happening in this case.

    But the papers were impounded, so clearly he is not telling the truth. The journalism faculty has every right to be furious. Maybe the Professor should sit in on some of their ethics classes.

    BTW it would be good to get the actual words of his ‘apology’.