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Perspectives of the press on “patronising” consent talks

Image credit: The Yorker
Image credit: The Yorker
Image credit: The Yorker

Consent has again become a hot topic of discussion at the University of York, largely due to the antics of a single student during Freshers’ Week. Ben Froughi took it upon himself to hand leaflets to new students outside Central Hall, informing them that they were required to attend only one of the two talks they were due to hear.

The debate about the importance and legitimacy of consent talks at the university goes on. Both Women’s Officers have written articles for the Daily Telegraph and York’s branch of The Tab expanding on their perspectives on the talks. Froughi’s words have been quoted by several national newspapers and he has been interviewed by The Tab and the i. Conversations about the consent talks can still be heard on campus, almost a week after Freshers’ Week.

Numerous commentators and newspapers picked up on the original Nouse story; the way in which the event has subsequently been described, even after a number of crucial amendments to the story were released, shows how persons and groups of particular political persuasions approach the same story. For some, their perspectives remain the same despite the amendments watering down the enormity of the situation.

What actually happened at Central Hall on Tuesday 27th September? The original report stated that a student had distributed leaflets outside Central Hall, entered the talks himself and staged a walkout. Later, amendments stated that Ben Froughi had not attended any of the talks or staged a walkout, and had only distributed leaflets after the first talk. Contrary to what some people might have said, Froughi did not at any case masquerade as an official from the University of York, though his leaflets did bear the university’s logo.

The reported that Froughi had used leaflets to encourage students to boycott the talks they were about to attend. The Debrief reported the same. In contrast, the Editor of Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, wrote in the Spectator that

students at York University staged a walkout from the sexual consent classes organised by their student union women’s officers. A quarter of the freshers decided they didn’t want to be lectured to by union worthies about when it’s OK to have sex. So they got up and left.

Both O’Neill and the Daily Mail contended that students “staged” a walkout. The “patronising” nature of the consent talks was the largest concern for the Daily Mail, even more so than providing an accurate picture of the University of York (the inappropriate image of York St. John University has since been removed from the article). The Mirror states that “angry students” left Central Hall “in protest at being ‘patronised'” on the day.

O’Neill is no fan of political correctness. He and many of his team at Spiked Online write regularly about the current culture on campus, rarely in a positive light. But O’Neill’s views are shared by many students across UK campuses. The volume of disillusionment with the National Union of Students, along with the increasing number of student societies dedicated to free speech, lends credit to O’Neill’s argument that students are fighting back against frustrating censorship and limitations on freedom of expression.

In spite of this, there is no coherent evidence to support the claim that students intentionally walked out in protest. In fact, most students had no idea that consent talks would be happening during their Freshers’ Week. The idea that they were an organised part of the pro-free speech, anti-political correctness movement within university campuses that O’Neill goes on to describe (and encourage) is rather far-fetched. While it is true that anti-NUS sentiment is growing in the UK, this “walkout” was hardly the orchestrated demonstration that O’Neill would have you believe.

Misinformation, either from bad reporting or from acquiring the news from second-hand sources, can eventually lead to the story’s distortion, often to fit a person’s argument. George Lawlor (or Lawson, if you read the Mirror), the Warwick student who has been in the spotlight ever since his own anti-consent talk article became an internet sensation last year, has tipped his hat to the University of York students who “refused to go” to the consent talks, despite Nouse‘s amendment stating that “no walk out was staged.”

Nor indeed is it true that a “quarter” of new students opposed the consent talks, a claim reported by Nouse and repeated by the Daily Mail. Dom Smithies, the student union’s Wellbeing and Community Officer, contends that of the 5,000 new students who attended the fire safety talks, approximately 250 students departed before the first consent talk began and only a handful did the same before the following three. If Smithies’s account is accurate, this constitutes an approximate twentieth, not a quarter, of the new student intake.

Even if the 25% figure were true, it seems only to apply to the first talk, which began with a PowerPoint problem, delaying the talks by five minutes, which, the Women’s Officers admit, may have prompted several students to leave. Did a quarter of students really want to ditch all of the talks in protest, or were a quarter of students just bored by a technical hitch in the very first talk?

There were noticeable differences in certain newspapers’ coverage of the event. The Independent included a statement from a representative of the National Union of Students, Hareem Ghani, discussing sexual harassment on campus. Further, the Independent stated that student unions across the UK have been criticised for not doing enough in response to reports of student sexual harassment and sexual violence, mentioning new NUS initiatives to respond to ‘rape culture’ and Manchester students’ efforts to ‘reclaim the night’.

In contrast, the Daily Mail stated that student unions have been criticised for doing too much: their ‘safe space’ policies, the Mail alleged,

are aimed at helping women and minorities feel safe on campuses, but many believe they have gone too far after activists campaigned to ban a range of mainstream speakers over fears their outspoken views could cause offence.

To some commentators, a handful of students left Central Hall to escape another few minutes of tedious talks in a stuffy chamber; to others, hundreds deliberately vacated the hall in order to shake their fists at political correctness, third-wave feminism and, as O’Neill ends his essay, union leaders who “limit free speech, moan about student debauchery and police everything from how students party to how they have sex.” Some reports mention rising allegations of sexual harassment, others mention rising allegations of hostility to free speech on campus.

From the evidence, it seems more likely that a handful of bored students did a runner during the pause between talks, than swathes of angry students stormed out in protest. This episode should serve as an example of a minor incident leading to major discussion due in part to misinformation, as well as how we interpret political events differently.