By Alicia D’Arcy, Features Sub-Editor
On Monday, 1 May, Arc removed an article published by Tharunka in which each candidate for the Arc Board elections was asked the same five questions and their unamended responses published. The article was republished late Wednesday afternoon (voting closed at 4pm on Thursday), however Tharunka was disallowed from reposting the article on Facebook.
The Tharunka Charter states that “[r]epresentations/images of candidates for any of the Arc elections shall not be included in Tharunka in the four weeks leading up to [it].” Accordingly, Tharunka was given authority by the Chair of the Arc Board to report on the election within this four week period upon the condition that the article was uneditorialised and received approval from the Returning Officer. I note that nominations for Arc Board closed on 7 April, less than four weeks before voting began and therefore within this restricted period.
Some candidates did not disclose the truth in their response to a question regarding their political affiliations. They were therefore asked a follow-up question, requesting they re-answer the original question in order to honestly represent themselves to the students voting for Arc Board.
All candidates amended their responses except for Sam Westley. I have known Sam for at least three years, and he has told me about his membership to both the Liberal Party and UNSW Liberal Club on many occasions. He is also depicted in the UNSW Liberal Club’s current Facebook cover photo.
Despite this, he refused to disclose these affiliations. Mr Westley otherwise ran on an independent platform. On Thursday afternoon, he was elected to Arc Board.
Deleting the Facebook comment and removing the article:
Since I was not allowed to editorialise his answer in the article published by Tharunka, I commented all candidates’ political affiliations on the Facebook post that we published on Monday morning. This comment was made in a personal capacity, from my personal Facebook account.
Within an hour, this Facebook comment was deleted by Arc. Soon thereafter, the article itself was also taken down. Complaints had been received about a lack of independence and the Returning Officer, Linda Lombardi, directed that the article be removed. This was done without editorial consultation or an adequate explanation.
It was only much later that day, at 5:33pm, that we received a comprehensive explanation via email from Ms Lombardi.
“I have some concerns about the independence of the article, and until I can find out more I thought it was safer to remove it given that the article was live for such a short amount of time,” she said.
“It appears that not all candidates were interviewed in the same way. One complaint alleges that candidates were repeatedly pressed to answer questions regarding political affiliation. I’m also aware of a published comment that suggests you believe specific candidates did not give sufficient (or truthful) answers.
“I understand that a comment is not part of the article but it contributes to the perception of bias, and I would like to get the full story before making a final decision.”
Let me be very clear: disclosing which political parties or clubs candidates are involved in does not make me biased or partisan. Moreover, asking a follow-up question when an interviewee’s original response is otherwise evasive, and bordering on dishonest, does not constitute editorialising. It constitutes me doing my job.
In an attempt to be apolitical and conflict averse, Arc has in fact made the very political decision to disallow honest reporting and its accompanying discourse.
Arc should not reactively respond to complaints from candidates with clear political incentives without first investigating the merits of those complaints.
The Facebook ban:
When our Managing Editor, Brittney Rigby, pressed Ms Lombardi about the decision to ban the article from Facebook, Ms Lombardi responded:
“The article is available so I don’t agree that anyone will be disadvantaged.”
This is not true. Tharunka’s material is primarily distributed through Facebook. It is the most effective and successful way of reaching our audiences. Not many students (read: probably none) decide to refresh the Tharunka website for fun.
Due to the restricted access to this article, candidates willing to mislead the wider student population about their true political affiliations gained an advantage over candidates that responded honestly.
This is undemocratic, and other candidates were disadvantaged, despite Ms Lombardi’s claims.
Arc management made the wrong decision in choosing to take down our article, especially when that article complied with the original approval.
In approving the piece, removing the piece, then re-approving the piece on the condition it was not reposted to Facebook, Arc has committed an act of censorship.
What this says about the election vs appointment debate:
In 2015, Arc decided that Tharunka’s editors would no longer be elected, but appointed. This decision was the subject of widespread criticism.
Osman Faruqi, former Tharunka editor and current News and Politics Editor at Junkee, was one of those critics.
“If editors are appointed, it becomes a marketing exercise by the university, and students can smell a rat,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014, prior to Arc’s decision.
But Brad Hannagan, Arc’s CEO, assured news outlets that appointments would not compromise Tharunka’s quality.
“There’ll be no change to independence, no change to the charter … The selection panel will be dominated by students,” Hannagan told Crikey at the time.
“We don’t have any fears that it’s the death of Tharunka or that the student voice will change. We just want to make sure there’s quality.”
Tharunka’s quality will undoubtedly suffer if censorship like this is to be enforced by those we are tasked with holding to account.
Clause 2.8.1 of the Tharunka Charter mandates that “[a]ny material involving criticism of Arc’s services, events or staff members will not be published without providing the Chair of Arc or CEO (or delegate) with the opportunity to respond.”
Below is Arc’s response:
“It was not the decision of Arc management to temporarily remove the article. The decision was made by the Election Returning Officer (RO) per the Arc Regulations, which take precedence over the Tharunka Charter. The RO does not otherwise retain executive authority within Arc.
The Arc Regulations state that the RO is responsible for “[r]eviewing all relevant Arc publications over the election period with the right to veto any material deemed not to be independent” (11.3(b)). The power to veto by the RO has always been in the Regulations and existed long before the change to appoint Tharunka’s editors was introduced. The RO has a duty to maintain independence. It is the reason why the Regulations prohibit campaigning in Arc premises, or using Arc resources, and it is the reason the power to veto exists. Arc as a whole must be seen to protect the integrity of the Board (and other) elections, which includes both Tharunka and Tharunka Facebook as Arc publications.”
Tharunka’s editorial team are currently involved in a Tharunka Charter review, conducted annually by the SRC.