For several years, UTS students have been publishing a daily newspaper during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. As Crikey’s Margaret Simons reported last week, the Festival impounded the first edition of the 2008 newspaper.

There was never any secret about this as the media reported it at the time. Two main issues upset the Festival management. One was a report that the then Minister for the Arts Frank Sartor was met with “grudging applause” at the Festival awards night. The reporting was said to be potentially offensive to the NSW government, a major sponsor of the Festival. Festival Director Dr Wendy Were also disliked the slightly humorous back page comments about queues, lack of an ATM and other tidbits about daily life at the Festival, which she regarded as “trashy”.

As the head of Journalism at UTS, I had two conversations with Were on this first day. My approach was to try to persuade her that the continued impounding of Festival News would backfire on the Writers’ Festival, which most people would not expect to be in favour of censorship. Later in the day, she reluctantly agreed to release the paper.

As Simons has also reported on her Content Makers blog, Festival News journalists have related in letters to the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Dean, Professor Theo Van Leeuwen and the SWF how harassment of student distributors continued during the week. Finally on the Saturday, I spent several hours distributing the paper myself because there had been further interference with distribution and we were not allowed to deposit them anywhere at Festival venues.

On the previous evening, ABC’s Lateline had reported on the attempts at censorship earlier in the week. So lots of festivalgoers were aware of these events and I observed that many of them were approving of the admittedly more lively 2008 Festival News and said they were opposed to the attempted censorship.

Nothing more was heard of these matters until February 17 this year when, following a tipoff, journalism staff visited the SWF page to see an apology including the words:

Professor Theo van Leeuwen, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UTS, has acknowledged that, contrary to claims made by the publication at the time, Sydney Writers’ Festival had not sought to censor Festival News in 2008, or to control the editorial content of this publication in any other way.

This was the first we had heard of this apology. Not only were staff shocked but also students, who had worked on the publication. The words in the apology corresponded neither to the available documentary evidence or their own direct experience. This ran counter to everything they are taught about journalism.

There is a convention in journalism that journalists are consulted before apologies are published. During the 14 years I have been at UTS, the university has never asked us not to publish anything or had to apologise for anything UTS journalism has published. It is this approach which has allowed independent journalism to flourish at UTS.

On February 26, Wendy Were told journalists who were trying to organize a 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival panel on the theme of dissent, that unless they removed my name from their list of proposed speakers, the panel could not go on. Instead of accepting this condition, the journalists withdrew the offer of the panel.

This is not the first time in my life that attempts have been made to ban me from speaking, but this latest instance came from an unexpected quarter. Over recent years, I have often participated in the Festival, usually on topics about injustice or dissent.

From my point of view, these events raise questions not only about freedom of expression and the role of journalism in a university but also about the Festival itself. How much influence do the Festival sponsors exert over its flavour and program? Are there any other examples of writers or critics who have been excluded because they fell out of favour? Has the SWF become the creature of publishers and sponsors to detriment of serious engagement and open discussion?

The success of the apology strategy relied upon students meekly accepting that their direct experience could be denied, the understanding that their job was to report what occurred at the Festival was wrong and their irreverent tone inappropriate. It is heartening, but not surprising to me, that their compliance could not be relied upon.

Postscript: As I finished this piece, I visited the SWF site to check the apology. It’s gone. Instead there appears:

The University of Technology, Sydney has for many years produced Festival News as part of a long standing arrangement with Sydney Writers’ Festival. The production and distribution of the paper was by contract “a promotional and marketing activity in support of the Sydney Writers’ Festival” for which the Festival regularly provided much in-kind support: including free distribution, tickets to events, interviews and unprecedented access to internationally renowned guest writers.

We regret that we have been unable to find a mutually satisfactory way forward in 2009 and therefore Festival News will not be appearing this year.

I’ve never seen or heard of this alleged contract. It’s odd that if it exists, no one from the Festival or UTS Faculty management ever once, during these events, mentioned its existence to myself, the students, journalism staff, let alone 2008 Festival News editor Jenna Price, who was tasked to produce an independent publication. And why, if such a contract existed, did Festival News carry the disclaimer that it did not represent the views of the Festival? Why did UTS pay for the publication and why did UTS journalism students, not the Festival, distribute it? In any case, this new assertion further confirms that the issue was always censorship and the right to control the editorial content, contrary to the disappeared apology.

If the Festival organisers aren’t prepared to have a public discussion about the role of dissent in literature, perhaps the SWF leadership should have a private session where they discuss what they understand by censorship, truth, professional and creative integrity and freedom of expression and when they’ve come up with a form of words, they can run them past the sponsors to get their approval?

Wendy Bacon is the Professor of Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney

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