Editorial: It’s one thing to deny allegations of unethical conduct, it’s another to insinuate victims are liars

The University Times’ response shows a complete lack of care towards students who entrusted their stories to the paper

On February 14, this newspaper published an article entitled “UT deputy editor accused of leaking anonymous sources’ names”. In a statement reproduced in full in the article, the journalist in question dismissed the allegations as “wholly false and defamatory”. Less than an hour after the article’s publication, the University Times (UT) itself issued “A Note to Our Readers Regarding Reports of Mishandling of Sources”, followed up by a Twitter thread from the paper’s editor which was shared to the official UT twitter account. A response to the publication of these allegations was expected. The tone and content of this response, however, was not.

The least desirable thing in the world would be for this to come to be seen as a “spat” between the two newspapers, as part of their larger “rivalry”. Publishing an editorial on the subject runs that risk. But this is not about Trinity News; we merely served in this case as the conduit for several people to relay their experiences. If anyone wishes to look less favourably on this newspaper or publicly call into question its commitment to solid reporting, we are sure we will be able to bear that burden. But another newspaper used its respected platform and considerable reach to level serious accusations of malfeasance against the aforementioned people, and we therefore feel an obligation to use our own platform and reach to note that these accusations are as baseless as they are repulsive. The inclination to blame victims is, without a doubt, truly and completely wrong.

The two explanations offered by the UT editor were that the story was a “cynical attempt to take down a candidate a week before a TCDSU election”, and that the allegations are “a result of rumour and hearsay”. They both do not stand on their own merits and are mutually exclusive; the story can either have been a mistake based on misidentification of gossip, or it can have been deliberately concocted to take down an innocent electoral candidate. It cannot be both.

In reality, it is neither. To say that the allegations are “the product of gossip and nothing else” requires us either to wilfully misread the original news article or to think that the people in question are lying or mistaken about their own stories. The interviewees in the February 14 article did not just hear rumours their stories were leaked; third parties were gossiping about confidential details they told exclusively to the UT deputy editor, in at least one case verbatim as they told it. This cannot be the product of “rumour and hearsay”: either it is true, or we are being asked to believe that these victims of harassment gave their testimony to someone else and then lied or forgot.

On the other hand, we are told it is a “cynical attempt” to sabotage an electoral campaign. This excuse is not only unconvincing, it’s downright abhorrent. The idea that people who have experienced harassment would manufacture these grievances and stories of severe trauma in order to influence a TCDSU election is as farcical as it is disgusting. With no disrespect meant to the hard-working officers of the union, sabbatical elections simply are not the biggest issue at stake here. It is unclear to us how anyone could read the accounts of trauma and distress given in that article and think “this person is just using this to influence a student union election”. These are people to whom an awful thing happened for which they do not feel accountability was taken, and thus they’ve taken to sharing their stories publicly.

Of course, that does get at the other reason the UT senior editorial staff are well aware this wasn’t manufactured for the election; this issue has been present for almost six months now. Concerns were raised almost immediately after the article was published, and resulted in a number of complaints to the Press Ombudsman and the Junior Dean, both of which the paper must have been aware of. Perhaps those involved felt that the election provided impetus to come forward with their stories. SU elections are not important enough to be worth committing defamation over, but they do afford the winners significant influence on campus, which several of those interviewed cited as a serious concern. What’s certain is that the victims do not feel their complaints have been adequately addressed.

A broader issue is the vigour with which the newspaper has officially rushed to the deputy editor’s defence. It is one thing to say that your official position is that no wrongdoing occurred. It is quite another to use the significant weight of UT’s name to call the allegations a coordinated, deliberate, defamatory attempt to sabotage her campaign. Astute observers of elections for the position of UT editor will already have noted that the position has literally never been won by someone who wasn’t previously deputy editor, and has only ever seriously been contested once. Questions have been asked before about how neutral the paper can be when reporting on the election of a senior member of its own staff. Any semblance of uncertainty around the answers to those questions is now gone.

Indeed, the response on the part of UT was all wrong, and is almost an entirely separate problem to that of the alleged leaking. Even in a hypothetical world where the leaking did not occur and the students who told their stories were genuinely mistaken, this cannot be how an influential student publication responds. If after six months and at least a half-dozen complaints people still do not feel their very serious accusations of mistreatment have been properly dealt with, something has clearly gone awry. To say that the paper “investigated” itself and found no wrongdoing is just an insult. Self-investigation never does seem to uncover misconduct, funnily enough.

The paper has not made these peoplewho had already been through so much at the beginning of this affairfeel listened to and taken seriously, to the point that they feel the need to make their grievances public. The automatic response should be compassion and a genuine desire to see what can be done for them. To accuse them of defamation and conspiracy is about the worst possible response.

The UT editor’s Twitter thread concluded by saying that “at no point has anyone questioned the substance of what [the deputy editor] uncovered”. This is, of course, true. No one wants to. It is very much true that there exist structural problems that facilitate harassment, abuse and bullying within College societies. The article was right to highlight that issue, and were there not such serious complaints about how the investigation was conducted, it would be an uncomplicatedly great piece of journalism.

But to say that the subject matter negates the allegations of journalistic malpractice is ludicrous, and completely backwards; it strengthens them. First, because it makes clear that the people who are now accusing a UT journalist of violating confidentiality were giving testimony about harrowing events, meaning the inappropriate disclosure of that testimony is all the more damaging. This alleged leaking has the potential not to just to hurt UT’s reputation and seriously harm the students in question, but to do serious damage to journalism as a whole. It reflects on the whole field, and students will be understandably wary of coming forward about issues like harassment and bullying in future.

Second, the premise of the September article was believing the accounts of the same students who are now alleging wrongdoing. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to entrust a journalist with a story of abuse. It must be devastating to learn your trust may have been broken. It is more appalling still for the people you trusted with this trauma to label you “defamatory”, and to tell others not to listen to you.

We were rightly asked to believe victims in September 2021. Why are the same people now calling them liars?