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The irritations of responsible journalism May 21, 2006

Posted by ayasawada in Personal.
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Have been livid this week with the bullyings of Imperial academics. It all started last week when two of the I,Science writers finished up an interview for the new issue.

Viviane came me a few months ago, asking if she could interview a renowned structural engineer who used to teach at Imperial. Fine, I thought. She thoughtfully took Liv, who is an engineer herself, with her. Last week Liv informed me that he had made some inflammatory comments about Imperial’s Civil Engineering department – he’s from industry and is frustrated at the lack of practical and design skills of graduates who only know numeracy and analytical skills. Liv responsibly wanted to give the department right of reply. I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, but respected her integrity and said go ahead. Mistake number 1: I hadn’t even seen the interview yet, nor heard what the comments were exactly.

Wednesday morning Liv received an irate phone call from the head of the undergraduate CivEng course, who proceeded to shout at her! Why was an Imperial publication interviewing this “clown” and “idiot” and trying to “scandalously” ruin the reputation of the department and Univeristy. A little shaken she told me what had happened and I set about trying to defuse the situation. I took advice from our Print module lecturer, who is a professional journalist, as well as Nick, our head of department, in case the ‘scandal’ reflected badly on the SciCom department. Both agreed we were under no obligation to change anything. However Nick agreed we were in a bit of an ethical dilemma. Though we are an independent publication of sorts, we are still a student magazine run and published out of Imperial. The union still has funding ties with the Uni and any pressure exerted by the CivEng department on Imperial’s notoriously prickly Rector could result in problems. On the other hand, we have the right to do the journalist thing and print the comments as said, which were perfectly accurate. Nick put us in touch with an ex-SciCommer who is close to the CivEng department and, helpfully, also a lawyer. That meeting provided much of the background to the problem. A grand tale of politics, internal feuds, petty academics and clash of personalities. With the added context the comments were perfectly understandable, but rather blunt and open to misinterpretation on the page. After discussions with Viviane, I agreed to modify the text.

Mistake number 2: letting the academics think they have got their way. I phoned the CivEng department head back (after receiving a four page email laying out a very scientist arguement over the situation – lack of understanding, non-experts daring to comment on technical subjects, scandalous use of Imperial publication, damage to reputation, what the hell does such and such know, he only got a 2:2). He was extremely surly and chastised me for dropping this thing into his lap. “What if I hadn’t been around to deal with this?”, “Have you any idea how much time I’ve wasted on this?”, he said. Have you any idea how much time I wasted on this Mr pompous CivEng git?? I lost my week to this shit. It was out of professional courtesy that we told you in the first place. We could have just printed it. And if you didn’t spend ages drafting four page emails you wouldn’t have wasted so much time. I understand his point of view – he has to defend his department – but he and his colleagues have no right to bully us into dropping our articles or treating us as imbeciles. It’s not like we intentionally set out to make a scandal. Mistake number 3: apologising in order to defuse the situation.

As it stands the article is being rewritten in light of the added context, but not dropped. CivEng insisted we send them the modified text. Mistake number 4: I agreed. It’s been a useful experience I guess and I’ve been shocked at how spineless I was at times. Responsible or weak? True, I didn’t want to make trouble for our department or next year’s editorial staff. I could easily have just gone with it, since I’m out of there in a few months time. No doubt CivEng are expecting to have full veto of the new draft. Take a guess at my answer.

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