Semper Floreat – The Hand That Feeds It
Using ‘Independent’ media as a political tool
By James Jessup
Semper Floreat articles are generally irrelevant in the discourse of student politics at UQ, but its independence still remains a key policy for nearly every running party. Campaigning for its independence may seem like a minor political gimmick, but it is actually a very clever sleight utilised by both major parties.
Let’s be honest, Semper articles are rarely a UQU election maker. At least, no more than a campaign promise of free beer printed on a scrap of coloured paper being nibbled by an ibis. Or by a group of turkeys (shout outs to college students).
The students that run the magazine rarely use it to overtly push a local political agenda, and quite often we see that they try their hardest to definitely not do that. Because Semper is ‘independent’.
This desire to be seen as ‘independent’ has the unfortunate effect of meaning that we rarely see commentary on student politics in it at all – left, or centre, or right, or wrong. It’s a pity that the one place that should be a consistent platform for discussion of student politics is kept from being that by virtue of it being spawned of student politics and owned by the UQU.
Every year, every party promises to ‘make Semper independent’, or ‘keep Semper independent’, as if this magazine has any political clout that could be abused. If a magazine isn’t writing on local politics, does it even need to be independent?
You see, this claim of ‘independence’ by Reform, Thrive, Fresh, Pulse, whatever – it is a sleight. A sleight not on voters, nor on readers, but on the candidates.
About the only thing ‘independent’ about Semper is its editors. I don’t doubt their capacity for independence, evidenced by their general unwillingness to write on student politics, presumably out of fear that it would be misinterpreted as being partisan. Even the most well-intentioned commentary would be easily spun, and therefore low-hanging fruit for a competing party to criticise come the next election.
And yet, this mentality is exactly what precludes Semper from ever being truly independent. It is nearly impossible for Semper to exercise editorial freedom, and therefore independence, under the current system.
It is difficult for the editors to write what they want, or how they want, for fear that it will be criticised in the next election. And, if it is criticised, it is a criticism of the whole party in charge of the UQU and not just of the Semper editors. No matter what, aspiring Semper editors will campaign for ‘independence’ and they will criticise the other tickets for not being independent.
The independence of this publication has all of a sudden become a key issue, regardless of substance, truth or effect, purely by virtue of its editors being elected on the platforms of major UQU tickets.
So if this is the case, why not just cut Semper from the main political race? If it isn’t politically persuasive and leads to inevitable criticism no matter how it is managed, why do the parties still care about it?
Because Semper is an extremely useful campaigning tool.
Every party tends to run politically neutral(ish) Semper candidates, who are often really cool, come from journalistic backgrounds, and are crowd pleasers. This adds to the charade that the rest of the party is ‘apolitical’, or if they aren’t, at least the media arm is ‘neutral’. It’s an excellent campaign strategy for the greater party because all of a sudden you have independent a-political minds (Semper) who are campaigning for line-toeing, partisan minds (the rest of the party… Usually hacks… Like, real student politicians).
The effect is that, although Semper Editors run on a platform of independence, they are required to campaign for the benefit the rest of the party. This means that for at least two weeks every year, no matter what they say, Semper editors are completely partisan, as they need to agree with the promises of their party – or at least wear their shirt and tell people to vote for them. That is part of the parcel of running as a ticket.
When Semper editors promise independence while campaigning, they are actually promising to avoid controversy for their party. Cleverly, they are luring students to vote for a party which is otherwise not at all independent. A move that easily slips under the radar of many voters. A move that some candidates might not even realise they are pulling.
So long as the editors run on the same platform, with the same shirts, and the same slogans as candidates for other (partisan) portfolios, Semper will never have the flexibility to be a check on power within UQ and it will never be a trusted source of local political commentary. Unfortunately, it will continue to be used as a political chip. This isn’t entirely the fault of the editors, but a design of the UQU that neither major party wishes to dismantle. Yet.