Katie French, a year on

Plymouth student Katie French made headlines when she published an expose of university disability cuts while uni chiefs were living it up. I caught up with her one year on. 

Onto the incident itself

What year were you in? Final year (3rd) 

Publication? The Knowledge

What made you want to write the pieces and were you worried about the reception they’d receive?

They were actually written by another editor (Gabby Thomas) but I knew the story was an important one to be heard. I was nervous because members of staff at the university and union always were unhappy if anything contentious was published but my overriding sense was one that students needed to know what was going on so we went ahead and did it. I was asked to take the article down and was told by the president of the student union not to publish anything more on the matter but I refused. 

Tell me about yourself

I’m from Newbury, Berkshire and went to school at St. Bartholomew’s then went to Newbury College. I read English at university, graduated this year and am now working as a reporter for a weekly paper, which is a part of the Local World group. I’m 24 and am now living in Devon. 

What did you get up to at uni?

I loved university and it was a great time in my life, you have so much freedom and so many opportunities. I was just a part of the radio society in my first year and then involved heavily with the student newspaper The Knowledge. I started off as a writer in first year then became a section editor, eventually taking over as editor in chief in my final year. 

The Knowledge team were a real support network throughout any troubles with the university or union. In particular Lauren Chivers and Maddy Taylor, who are running the paper this year, listened to me rant and fret over issues and were always there if I needed something proofread quickly or a story quickly put online. The raw passion that our team had for stories and success made up for our lack of training. Our weekly editorial meetings would be full of ideas, laughter and the occasional row. I was very lucky for my team to be full of such talented and driven people! 

We were awarded ‘Society of the Year’ this year, the paper had really been turned around and transformed with hundreds as opposed to a handful of students involved. I was nominated for the leadership award for steering the team through the rebrand etc. Roland Levinski Memorial was for my voluntary work in first year (I did some volunteering at local primary schools helping with english and maths) and went to Ghana to work with children of a similar age at a primary school there. 

Response to the piece

How did other students feel? 

The reaction was very strong from the student body: petitions were set up.

What was the university’s first response

The threat for dismissal came from a member of staff at the student union who said I could be sent to ‘stage 3’ (instant dismissal) for publishing articles like this. 

Did they follow through with these threats? No they didn’t.

Sophie Davis, chair of the Student Publication Association, whom Katie reached out to expressing her concerns, said: “We were contacted by Katie, and we supported her and their decision at the paper. We believe student media is the face of the students and should represent them, if that means releasing information about a union that doesn’t benefit the students or is against an ethical union strategy we believe that publications should be allowed to publish the information. Obviously however this may cause problems.”

Requests for comment to the university and to the students union were not returned.

What are you up to now

Now I’m working as a reporter for a weekly newspaper which is a part of the Local World group. I absolutely love it, journalism is so, so, SO important. Even in the tiniest sense whether you’re a writer on a student newspaper or news editor of Daily Politics, you are in a position where you can ask questions on the public’s behalf. Without journalism there would be no watchdogs there to hold corporations, governing bodies, people etc, to account. 

As for what the future holds it would be a dream to edit a paper again – but we’ll have to see, I have a handful of exams to get through before I can get too ahead of myself. 

Do you have any regrets? 
I wish I’d found out about the Student Publication Association earlier on because I think they could have provided a lot of support. I regret not buying a copy of McNae’s Essential Media Law earlier on too! 

We had no training so if I could do it again I would have worked harder to provide proper training in law and reporting for writers and editors. You can defend yourself much better once you know your rights. 

What piece of advice would you give to your 23 year-old self? 

My advice would be follow your instincts and I would tell that to any student editor or journalist. If you have a hunch that something isn’t quite right, you’re probably on to something.  

Would you do it again? 
Yes I would! At the end of the day as a journalist, you are there to report. Sometimes the news will be good, sometimes it will bad. We are only messengers in all of this. I had to report that these things were happening because our audience deserved to know. 

Editor’s note: Kettle is a member of the Student Publication Association.