‘SCAN didn’t have any teeth’: We spoke to Spineless about student media

‘There’s no way to hold the FTOs to account’

What a turbulent time it is for students at Lancaster University. We’ve had the Sugarhouse catastrophe, Students’ Union resignations, FTO elections, and now Covid-19 fears.

One thing you can be certain of, though, is that all of this will be covered by your student media teams. We spoke to Andrew Williams, Head Editor of Spineless – your newest unaffiliated student media team – to talk about social media, LUSU, cancel culture, and The Sugarhouse.

Andrew Williams, Head Editor of Spineless

What is Spineless?

“It’s a website, an alternative student media publication. Independent, on-campus. In that way, not so dissimilar to The Tab. It was created because we thought that SCAN didn’t have any teeth, or backbone. So the Spineless name fits in there – and because of the Spine as a physical feature of the uni. It’s also owning the insult.”

What’s the most important aspect of student media?

“I think it’s about promoting engagement in university affairs. Particularly, I think this should be the role of the Students’ Union’s media to advertise, in a way, and to hold them to account and be critical. News. It’s just news. The most important part is news, people should know. It’s reporting on things, investigating, that’s the most important part. It’s simple.”

Is it a testament to Lancaster that we have university student media teams, and external media teams?

“In terms of having competition between outlets, that’s definitely a good thing. The outlets have to improve their own content, and get things from a different angle. It’s objectively good. Lancaster has a history of that. We have an interesting history of having always had official stuff, like the Students’ Union stuff, and the university press; and independent stuff, like The Tab and Spineless.”

How important is editorial independence within student media?

“Doing Spineless is easy – I decide what I write. nobody has told me not to write something. I was News Editor of SCAN for a while, and SCAN has a line on their website, that basically says they’ll uphold what the Union says. It comes down to what legally the Union says SCAN can write. They might be a bit overzealous with things like defamation. A problem with SCAN is that the students writing it are too afraid of the Union saying that they can’t right about stuff, and it’s a self-perpetuating problem.”

Should student media be influenced by cancel culture?

“I don’t know. In a way, I don’t think student journalists can avoid it. We’re all subconsciously aware of this – there are reputations, and Lancfessions. It’s not fair to put it in your writing. It’s not fair to say something like ‘This officer did something minor, and they’re terrible for it.’ It has to be something they’ve done, and you can document it, and it actually had consequence. I don’t know. I feel like I’m not the right person to answer that question. Don’t publish unfair stories, make sure they’re evidence-based.”

Do you think Sugar was used as a scapegoat to get people engaged in the Students’ Union’s activities?

“In a way. It was an example. Everything that people don’t like about the Students’ Union coalesced into one issue, which was the sale of the nightclub. It had unfortunate consequences in terms of Ben Evans resigning, and he got a lot of backlash from students, which is a difficult situation because I think that ties into the fact that there’s no democratic body in the Union anymore, and there’s no way to hold the FTOs to account; what’re students supposed to do when they’re angry? It became a bigger issue, and it created an internal crisis in the Students’ Union.”

Do media teams currently do enough to hold the university to account?

“I used to think ‘no,’ and then I set up Spineless and that’s all we’ve done! Sometimes there are good things that I agree with, like the stuff [The Tab] did on the Sugarhouse sale, and the article examining Bee and George’s manifesto pledges were quite good. I think it’s touch and go sometimes, but this year it’s been quite good.”

Do you worry about social media being used to spread panic?

“I think the media teams, the established groups like The Tab, SCAN, LA1TV then usually no. In terms of social media then yeah I do see that quite a lot. People who post on “Overheard at Lancaster” and stuff then just stop; sometimes these things get sifted out a bit by admins, so maybe stuff goes up that gets taken down, which is a good thing.”

What are the main failings of student media teams on campus?

“The main failing of SCAN is what I saw as them having no teeth, and didn’t publish anything interesting and exciting, which is a shame because it’s got a lot of institutional support from the Students’ Union. It actually publishes in physical copy, but that was once this term. They’re all societies in the university, and they get a bit cliquey. I tried to run for SCAN Editor, and then got kicked out of SCAN. I put myself forward as a candidate for Editor, and then the day before the election I was kicked out of SCAN by Ruth [Walbank] due to writing for Spineless, and that being a ‘conflict of interest,’ and defamation, despite me never writing anything about SCAN.”

Andrew received the email below, telling him that he was no longer a member of SCAN:

How do you feel about the conduct of LA1TV in the run up to Ben Evans’ resignation?

“I wrote an article for SCAN about the interview, and I reread it not that long ago. Ben’s reasons for resigning weren’t taken seriously, and now Hannah’s resigned people are doing a double take. Maybe there’s more to it? The conduct of LA1 I defended in the article. It was an interesting decision that they did that, but not totally unjustified. Looking back, they probably wouldn’t have done it if they knew the situation that Ben was in.”

Can student media influence the Students’ Union?

“Having an impact? Definitely. I think writing so much about The Sugarhouse last term probably saved it. In terms of Spineless, we fixate the bylaws; we wrote about meeting minutes that weren’t published – then they published them. We wrote about them not appointing a returning officer for the elections – then they appointed one. We’re causing them to do things, which is good, but it doesn’t make them more transparent, no. The Students’ Union double down and defend themselves, rather than admit an error and try and address it. So it doesn’t make them more transparent, but it does have an impact.”