Bid to defund Trinity student paper a ‘press freedom’ issue

Vote on funding follows controversial story into secretive society’s initiation ceremony

University Times editor Eleanor O’Mahony, reporter Edmund Heaphy and deputy editor Donal MacNamee at the paper’s office in Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

University Times editor Eleanor O’Mahony, reporter Edmund Heaphy and deputy editor Donal MacNamee at the paper’s office in Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The University Times student newspaper office in Trinity College Dublin looks out across the cobblestone front square of the city-centre campus. The window of the cramped office, littered with stacks of old papers, faces the 166-year-old campanile bell tower.

In late February reporters from the student paper observed what appeared to be the start of an initiation ceremony under the bell tower, held by members of the Knights of the Campanile.

The male-only society was founded in 1926 to “further the sporting activities of Trinity College Dublin” and “promote the better entertainment and hospitality accorded to visiting teams”.

The initiation reportedly moved to the on-campus apartment of the society’s president, Ben Arrowsmith, which University Times reporters are alleged to have overheard.

It reported that members could be heard being told to eat butter, and that gagging and retching sounds could be heard

Attempts to record the events by reporters, by covertly placing a recording device near the open apartment door, has led to a backlash on the campus, with students to vote on a proposal to substantially cut the paper’s funding next month.

On March 15th, the University Times published the article of the initiation ceremony, which quickly gained traction and was picked up by several national media outlets.

The student paper reported that society members were being jeered and shouted at over a period of time. It also reported that members could be heard being told to eat butter, and that gagging and retching sounds could be heard from within the apartment.

Air of mystery

The group’s exclusivity has traditionally given it an air of mystery on the Dublin campus. Membership of the invite-only club is limited to 50 current students at any one time, and admission is based on students’ “contribution to college sport in a playing or organising capacity”. The group has 1,200 members including past alumni, according to its website.

The current editor of the University Times, Eleanor O’Mahony, has stood over the reporting methods used by the paper.

The recording device was discovered by a member of the Knights of Campanile and has not been returned to the student newspaper. The report of what allegedly occurred inside the apartment was based on notes taken by reporters, who were listening at the top of a stairwell near the apartment.

“I was there on my phone taking down everything I could hear clearly; I only took down the things I was absolutely sure I was hearing,” Ms O’Mahony told The Irish Times. “The door was wedged open, clearly they could be heard,” she said.

The reporters had gained access to the student accommodation by following another resident inside, she said.

A spokeswoman for Trinity confirmed “two separate investigations are currently being conducted by the junior dean, the first on the hazing [initiation] allegations and the second on the recording allegations”.

The chairman of the National Union of Journalists ethics council defended the reporting methods

In a statement, the Knights of the Campanile said it would not be appropriate to comment until the investigations had concluded.

Mr Arrowsmith also said he would not be commenting until the investigation by the junior dean had concluded.

On foot of the story, more than 500 students have signed a petition to significantly reduce the financial support given to the newspaper by Trinity’s student union, triggering a campus referendum that will take place on April 10th and 11th.

The change would see the newspaper’s funding cut to €3,000, the current equivalent of a single print issue of the newspaper. It would also abolish the editor’s salary and on-campus accommodation.

‘Abolition’ of paper

Former editor Edmund Heaphy, who contributed to the story, said the proposal was not a budget cut, but “the abolition of the University Times as it stands”.

The campaign to cut the newspaper’s funding was a freedom of the press issue, to which the university’s response had been “extremely watery,” he said.

Several individuals understood to be involved in the campaign to hold a referendum are involved in various campus sports clubs, but none wished to comment for this story.

The rival campus newspaper, Trinity News, was heavily critical of the University Times reporting, over what they described as the “bugging” of a student’s apartment. This characterisation is rejected by the University Times.

Niamh Lynch, Trinity News editor, said she would not support the referendum, which was a “cynical effort to shut down the newspaper”.

Prof Chris Frost, chairman of the National Union of Journalists ethics council, defended the reporting methods as “consistent with the highest professional standards of public-interest investigative journalism”.

Strain on budget

Current Trinity student union president Shane de Rís said he would be remaining neutral in the upcoming vote.

However, the cost of supporting the campus paper has been a strain on the union budget in recent years, leading to increasing tensions.

The University Times is running a deficit in the region of €14,000, which is picked up by the union, he said. As a result the union has had to cut student services elsewhere to subsidise the paper, Mr De Rís said.

When I was there, I was very happy to be a part of it … There would be no more high jinks than normal college life at the time

The Knights of the Campanile are involved in hosting events for visiting sporting teams, and organise a number of social nights out each year, according to one member who did not wish to be named.

The group also hosts an annual dinner with past alumni, which was recently held in the campus Dining Hall.

Trinity Provost Patrick Prendergast attended the dinner this year. A spokeswoman for the college said “the dinner took place before the current allegations of hazing emerged in relation to the society.

“In his role as head of the university, the provost is frequently invited to annual dinners of various clubs and societies,” she said.

Cliff Beirne, who was president of the society for two terms, from 1980 to 1982, said the group always had a “good reputation” within the university.

“When I was there, I was very happy to be a part of it … There would be no more high jinks than normal college life at the time,” he said.