LA1TV’s doorstep interview raises accountability questions

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Just hours before putting out a public statement announcing he was taking temporary leave from his elected position as VP Activities of the Students’ Union, Ben Evans was confronted in the Students’ Union building by a team from LA1TV. The interaction was uploaded to LA1TV’s Facebook page, where it was met with mixed reactions from students prior to Evans’ announcement. SCAN believes the questions raised deserve exploration as they have implications for how politics and journalism are conducted on the wider campus.

During the video, Evans was in the open-plan office area of the Students’ Union when a reporter from LA1TV approached and asked: “Are you going to respond to SCAN’s request for a comment at any point?” Mr Evans walked away from the camera, but the reporter continued: “Have you tried to avoid responsibility Mr Evans?” At which point, George Nuttall, the President of the Students’ Union, physically placed himself between Mr Evans and the camera, saying “You should probably leave him alone in his place of work.” After 23 seconds, the video ends.

Following the video’s release Leon Holden, Station Manager at LA1TV, told SCAN: 

“We want to make it perfectly clear that SCAN was not involved in any way with the doorstep interview of VP Activities Ben Evans. Whilst we understand it was a polarising event, we genuinely, as LA1TV, believed that it was in the student interest to try and get a comment or statement from VP Activities regarding his refusal to comment or engage with Student Media. We apologise to SCAN for causing them undue attention in an action that was carried out purely by LA1TV.”

Leon Holden, Station Manager at LA1TV

Some students claimed the video was “no different to bullying and harassment,” while others argued that Evans is an elected official who represents students and should face criticism, even if it is confrontational.

The doorstep has raised questions about the nature of accountability within the Students’ Union. Should student media be ‘aggressive’ in holding FTOs to account? What if there seem to be no options left? What impact has the loss of representative structures such as the Union Council really meant for the SU? Has there been an attitude shift in the student body away from accountability as something that is plausible, feasible, or even a good thing? If so, has this been conditioned by three years with no real structures of accountability following the 2016 LUSU constitutional reforms?

The “doorstep” is a tried and tested journalistic technique to put a public official on the spot and gain an answer. Often, media outlets can obtain interviews at a set time, with a set method, by prior agreement. But an unplanned face-to-face encounter can elicit information that a planned interview otherwise cannot. LA1TV also cited national media guidelines in defending their decision, especially the Ofcom Broadcasting Code 2019 which states: “Doorstepping for factual programmes should not take place unless a request for an interview has been refused.” They also cited the BBC Editorial Guidelines 2019, which says doorstepping is permitted “when there is a public interest or where an individual’s role requires them to be publicly accountable.”

Ruth Walbank, Editor of SCAN, also said: 

“We would like to make it clear that SCAN did not know about the doorstop interview until after-the-fact, and that while VP Activities did not respond initially to our request for comment, we did not ask LA1TV to pursue it. 

“We respect the journalistic rights of our colleagues at LA1TV to conduct a doorstop interview and appreciate they did so in the interest of the student body.”

As stated in the constitution of SCAN, the paper exists “for the purpose of informing […] the University population” (2.1). This primary objective is what we aim to do when covering news stories and responding to student concerns, and we always strive to do so in a balanced, ethical way.”

Ruth Walbank, SCAN Editor

Cllr Oliver Robinson, who represents University and Scotforth Rural Ward on Lancaster City Council, noted:

“On a human level I absolutely understand that this is a very stressful situation for anyone to be in, that being ambushed by the press can be a little jarring.” But he also said: “It’s not like the FTOs got into their positions by accident – like me, they ran for election and are therefore politicians. And like all other politicians, they should be transparent about their decisions.”

Cllr Oliver Robinson

Ronnie Rowlands, a former student who wrote for SCAN before being elected Vice President Campaigns and Communications for the 2014/15 academic year addressed those who were concerned the doorstep had gone too far:

“You’d’ve caught fire if you read the stuff I used to write in SCAN about FTOs, and you’d’ve melted if you read the stuff that was written about me when I was FTO. It’s accountability, get a grip.”

Ronnie Rowlands

However, there was a strong feeling against the tactic, with one student complaining “he’s a student not a bloody politician” and another arguing that “he’s a student… you know, not some elected MP.” Mr Evans was in fact elected in March by 1504 students on a turnout of 2678, and he is a full-time officer – that is, a permanent, paid official of the Students’ Union. He takes a salary that students will indirectly be paying for through the block grant given to the SU by the university, through the drinks you buy on a night out at Sugar, or by the rent you pay to LUSU Living in your student house.

But with the announcement of Evans taking temporary leave from his role as a result of the pressure on him and the effect this has had on his welfare and mental health, attention must turn to whether there have been institutional failings to support him over the last two months from within the Students’ Union, or the pressure is a failing of the institution to provide proper outlets for accountability. Serious questions have now been posed, the answers to which students will no doubt be demanding at the Students’ Union AGM on Monday.

Andrew Williams

News Editor 19/20.

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