Commentary | The student media deserves answers

“Zach is just a hard-working capitalist under attack from crazy campus radicals.”

“Zach is NOT my roommate, but he shouldn’t step down either.”

“Zach is corrupt – but I can only tell you seventy per cent of the story or my sources will go fucking ape shit!”

The above are all various reactions in the campus media and blogosphere to the news that SSMU President Zach Newburgh has been lobbying on behalf of Jobbook – a new social networking and job search site.

If you haven’t been following the story, Newburgh was nearly asked to step down, and ultimately censured because members of SSMU Council and the executive (who have not been identified) were concerned Newburgh had a conflict of interest: he never told SSMU of his involvement, received shares in the company for his trouble, and travelled to England, California, and other parts of the U.S. to promote the site – perhaps even presenting himself as the president of SSMU. This information wasn’t revealed until months later, when there was a possibility SSMU could also buy shares and his confidentiality agreement ran out.

This might sound straightforward, except for the fact that a majority of information in stories both in The Daily and the Tribune was either leaked or anonymous. This is because the entire marathon spent discussing the pros and cons of Newburgh’s involvement with Jobbook occurred in camera – or in confidential session.

It appears a lot of councillors are afraid they will be sued for libel – because if they break the confidentiality agreement they could get kicked out of SSMU and lose access to their legal defense fund. I’m sure this is all very personally distressing, but some of them appear to have been kind enough to actually speak with The Daily and the Tribune.

But that does not absolve SSMU from the responsibility that students still deserve to know what happened – beyond what was slipped to the media. Whatever your opinion is of Zach’s conduct, it’s still one of the biggest stories to come out of SSMU in years. It’s also on its way to being one of the most mishandled, given the level of secrecy and fear under which it has proceeded.

A major part of the democratic process is informing constituents of why decisions were made and how – to the last boring millisecond of deliberation (the reason C-SPAN exists!). Not allowing students to read the minutes of the meeting itself, and leaving them to quibble over what may or may not have happened has created a fresh imbalance of information (re: power) at SSMU. There’s a small group of people who know exactly what happened; a ring of student journalists, friends, and bloggers that may have some idea but lack the paper trail to write about it; and everybody else. And who is this protecting?

All this covert “deep-throating” is also aggravating because members of the campus media are basically being discredited for doing their job, and it places the burden on them to prove the story, as opposed to those councillors who tried to get Newburgh out of office. Anonymous sources and unattributed information look inherently sensationalist, especially when they concern a case of potential corruption. If you read a few of the online comments responding The Daily’s editorial, you’d think the paper made the whole thing up. What this means is that councillors can’t risk their own names, but they can risk the by-line of a news writer or an editorial board – who can still get sued for libel. The limited information is also dangerous because it gives bloggers or commentary writers just enough to run with and make unsubstantiated – yet seemingly credible – claims. This story could easily disappear, but it’s kind of disturbing to think someone may have represented our student union without our consent.

If you care, write to your student councillors urging them to release information from the session. This can be achieved through a 200-signature petition to force the question onto the agenda of the next Council session, or by getting an individual councillor to bring it up.

Erin Hale is a U3 Philosophy student and a former Daily editor. Write her at erin.hale@mail.mcgill.ca


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