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.