Op-ed: The UT referendum is a disproportionate response to its Knights story

Provost Patrick Prendergast argues that the referendum is an unreasonable response to the bugging controversy

In recent weeks, there has been enormous media interest of the reporting of the University Times into the activities of the Knights of the Campanile. Students are wrestling with the ethical, legal, and journalistic questions that have arisen, and soon will be asked to vote on a referendum to defund this award-winning paper. As Provost, my position is unambiguous: I do not believe defunding the University Times is a proportionate or reasonable response to its story, and will be a blow against press freedom. I do not believe any club or society should be involved in hazing, and such practices should be exposed if they do exist, and they should be totally eliminated from College life.

The debate has centered on how far journalists can go in attempting to expose such practices in student clubs and societies, and I have followed the arguments made by legal experts and leading journalists with interest. Students and staff have taken their own positions on this issue as well. It’s important because, in a university like ours, the activities of student clubs and societies drive much of the social life, and students learn from participating in sporting, debating, and intellectual pursuits. You learn about organisation, teamwork, finance, leadership, and often make lifelong friendships.

A feature of Trinity is that clubs and societies govern themselves subject, of course to the laws of the country and the College’s regulations administered by the Junior Dean. A vibrant tradition of student societies exists in Trinity; it is one of our great strengths. I welcome it.

Student journalism is vital to this learning environment – a university without student journalism would be a poorer place, and that is why DU Publications funds this excellent newspaper, Trinity News, and many other publications.

Some publications are news driven, some are opinion driven, some are whimsical and some are vicious. To be clear; I don’t always like what they publish. It is not so long ago that there was a front page story depicting me yawning at an event (I wasn’t) while another publication had a cartoon of me as Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” (I didn’t), and a third wrote about my multi-million penthouse apartment (no penthouse either, I’m afraid).  

I wish all news stories were accurate but I accept that won’t always be the case. News gathering is an imperfect art. The interpretation of events and the opinions expressed in our student publications are often unfair but I still subscribe to the old saying: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Which brings me to the students’ union-funded University Times. This is a paper that has often criticised me and many other students and staff for real and imagined errors. I know from personal experience that the University Times makes mistakes but I also know from experience that it makes an important contribution to College life by reporting on the issues that affect us all.

There are good reasons why the University Times won an international award for the best non-daily student newspaper at an awards ceremony in the United States in 2017 hosted by the Society of Professional Journalism.

The University Times has pursued an independent course in many aspects of College life, and done so fearlessly. If it wants to write about the Knights of the Campanile, it should do so fearlessly. I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of any investigation into the alleged recording of conversations or alleged incidents of hazing, but it will surprise nobody to know that I’m against recording private conversations, as I’m against hazing.

I use the word “fearlessly” for two reasons. The first reason is that the university’s current strategic plan calls on all of us to be fearless. Trinity wants students and staff to stand up and take a stance. And I also use the word “fearlessly” because I believe that democracy requires a fearless media to thrive and we live in a time when newspapers and broadcasters everywhere have been weakened by economic forces.

I urge students who plan to vote on the future of the University Times to consider your vote carefully. Society thrives on reliable information. A plurality of media acting independently is your best source of such information.

If the University Times made an error when it recorded a conversation then the best way to deal with that is through the Junior Dean. A referendum to decide to defund the paper is a short-term exercise of power that will create a long-term weakness for all.

Finally, I would like to say something about the Knights of the Campanile. Like previous Provosts, I accepted honorary membership of the Knights, and I have enjoyed attending some of its dinners, and meeting with its alumni. The Knights recognise sporting achievement and leadership in sports clubs. The women’s equivalent is the Heraeans, but it has not been active for some years. I have asked the Knights to consider how all members of the Trinity community can be recognised, regardless of gender. I have been assured that they will consider this at their next meeting. The time for gender-specific memberships is long past.

Patrick Prendergast

Dr. Patrick J. Prendergast is the current Provost of Trinity College Dublin.