Sunday, October 02, 2005

No binoculars in the ivory tower

Injunctions are the heavy artillery in media wars, barring actual bars. In New Zealand we have no Judith Miller, but a court injunction was served today by a university, Victoria, on Salient, its student magazine. The reason: Confidential documents were leaked to Salient detailing plans to raise fees by a level that would require government approval.

All 6,000 copies of the magazine are now under university lock and key. But the article in question can be read here. It's legal. And it's a case of incompetence from an institute of higher learning.

Rather than being effective in suppressing an issue of significant public interest (for students, questions about student fees rate quite highly), Victoria University has shown that sometimes it's best to grin and bear it. Artillery tend to attract calls of overkill.

Victoria has failed to note the developing dynamic in student media. The story has been published in Critic, and also ran in Nexus, and Chaff. These three publications are also student rags, working together through the ASPA newswire. Author of the disputed article, Keith Ng, flagged this co-operation in this months-old press release, and the little ASPA logos on shared stories mean many students are also aware of this service.

ASPA were not listed in the injunction.

I understand the injunction was served on Salient only late on Sunday evening, by accident. Salient editor Emily Braunstien said the university had intended serving it at 10am on Monday morning. By which point, of course, these three other magazines had already been printed and were being distributed. Salient could be seized, but word was already out.

Blogs and Scoop have also stepped onto the case. Name suppression was bent recently by the internet in the case of Mark Ellis and Brent Todd, but the case of Salient vs. Victoria seems a much more defensible, and important, skirting of press suppression.

The effect of all this, has been unwelcome attention from many news outlets over the injunction, which is all out of proportion to the original story. I wrote similar stories about proposed fee rises in 2003, which died quick, lonely deaths.

And the original purpose of the injunction, to prevent confidential information from being made public, is somewhat pointless if there are already 15,000 copies of it printed and numerous internet hyperlinks. Not to mention keen interest in the court case scheduled for Thursday.

This from Checkpoint, an interview with Victoria Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh:
Radio New Zealand: You are aware the information has already been published. Will you be serving further injunctions?

Pat Walsh: I was only made aware of that two minutes ago by you. I would need to consider the issues and probably make a decision within 12 hours.

RNZ: That might make the whole process of seeking an injunction rather pointless.

Walsh: That's correct. It may do.
Victoria has nothing to gain by continuing court action. Unless, of course, they're after a test case of media and internet freedom where they begin firmly on the back foot.

UPDATE: More comment from Lyndon Hood at Fightingtalk, arguing the case needs big-media support otherwise a nasty precedent might stand, and Tze Ming Mok at Public Address, who sees a suprising lack of attention-whoring from Salient.

DISCLAIMER: The author worked as deputy editor at Salient in 2003, and probably knows too much.


Rich said...

Did Google/Blogger remove the page under pressure from VUW?

Matt said...

Nope. The decision was mine, following correspondence with Victoria University spokesperson Jude Urlich.

I'm not conceding anything, and I'm waiting to how things develop today before taking further action.

Blogger, and myself, can't be touched legally from New Zealand. Any formal attempts to do so would be ham-fisted, much like their original actions.

Kerry Tankard said...

Hey Matt, good to see your writing again, been missing your sharp wit. Salient could have done with it this year, never mind this week.
Now you've gone and turned me into a blogger. has this afternoon's update, from my POV, I'm sure Keith's was diffferent but when did I ever agree with him? ;-) Have to say he was smart to offload a copy of the story to you, kudos to both of you.