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February 27, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Salient Facts

Salient’s lifespan does not tend to exceed a week. Following distribution on Monday, it’s flicked through once, then discarded in lecture theatres, crumpled in puddles, used to line litterboxes, fashioned into amusing hats. We joke about it serving as a “ready source of free toilet paper” on our Facebook page but, well—we wouldn’t be surprised.

But as fleetingly as it may exist on a small scale, Salient has been an integral part of life at Vic for more than 70 years. Chief feature writer and former co-editor Elle Hunt looks at the role it has played in Victoria University’s history and campus culture, as well as in launching some illustrious careers.

“‘I’ve been with my man for a few years, and the sex is getting boring,’” complains Wellington deputy mayor and Victoria University chancellor Ian McKinnon. “‘I’ve had him fulfil some of my fantasies, but he never comes up with any of his own, so we just go through the motions.’”

McKinnon pauses and looks up at his audience, comprised of one hundred men in their sixties—an old boys’ club on a scale not often seen today. Among those present are a Supreme Court Justice and a Queen’s Counsel.

“‘Can you suggest some tips and tricks—maybe even some daring positions—to bring out the passion?’”

It is, of course, a rhetorical question. McKinnon is speaking at a reunion of Salient contributors from the 1960s, and to highlight how “liberal” (his descriptor, bless him) the publication has become in the past half-century, he is reading aloud an excerpt from 2011’s “very frank” sex advice column, ‘Constance Cravings’.

I won’t read Constance’s reply,” concludes McKinnon, “but I quoted it to one of you a short time ago, and he commented that he had obviously attended Vic about five decades too early!”

In her response to that dissatisfied reader, Constance referred in passing to “poop-happy boyfriends”, being “wet like a monsoon”, and a “deep longing… to be bound in rope and ball-gagged”, which just goes to reiterate McKinnon’s point that Salient is a very different (“liberal”) publication to that of his day. Then again, Vic is a very different institution.

Since its foundation in 1938 by A. H. Scotney (better known as Bonk—what happens in O-Week doesn’t always stay in O-Week, one assumes), Salient’s content has evolved to reflect the priorities and views of its changing readership in keeping with its role as an “organ of student opinion”.

If students have felt it or thought it or fought it, Salient has printed it. When “the most important thing” for a woman was to “become a lady”, now-Sir Geoffrey Palmer bemoaned the ease with which “a university girl [could] lose her femininity and her dignity” in a 1963 editorial. (“It reflects the standards of the year,” he said in 2008. “My opinion has changed.”) When, in the late 1960s, students expressed concern at their increasing workload, Salient lobbied for internal assessment to replace end-of-year exams. And when then-VUWSA president Joel Cosgrove donned a shirt that read ‘I [heart] my penis to a 2008 graduation ceremony, Salient’s coverage reflected the derision felt by most of the wider student body.

As well as being (we flatter ourselves) an amusing read, one way in which Salient reflects and fights for students’ interests is by holding the University and the students’ association, VUWSA, to account. It works alongside VUWSA to protect students from the commercial agenda of the University, while also ensuring that VUWSA’s spending and activity is in the best interests of its members.

Although it receives funding from VUWSA, which—as of the introduction of former ACT MP Heather Roy’s Voluntary Student Membership Bill this year—is itself contracted to supply services by the University, Salient retains editorial independence from both. This means it can report on their activities, good (organising an ‘O’-for-awesome O-Week) or bad (spending students’ money on calls to psychic hotlines—see timeline) without encountering a conflict of interest.

Unsurprisingly, these relationships have come under some strain in the past. Under the Salient Charter, the publication is expected to give “reasonable coverage” of the association’s activity and goals throughout the year, and this positions it as both its mouthpiece and its critic—a difficult balance to maintain. Successive news editors have complained of the trivialities and boredom of general meetings in the fortnightly ‘Eye on Exec’ column, and received biting responses from exec members themselves. In recent years, though, Salient and VUWSA have worked together fairly constructively, due in part to the professionalisation of the association and the introduction of an Association Manager in 2009.

The University’s relationship with Salient has largely been positive since 2005, when University Council documents with details of a possible fee increase of five to ten per cent were leaked to then-News Editor Keith Ng. Victoria University’s Vice-Chancellor obtained a court injunction to prevent the distribution of the issue in question, unaware that Ng had extended the story to the Aotearoa Student Press Association newswire. The information was published elsewhere in student media, and the magazine was distributed four days late after the University and Salient settled out of court.

The altercation made national news headlines—not the first time Salient has scooped the mainstream media. Although just 5000 copies of the magazine are distributed each week, its reach often extends beyond Victoria University because its editorial independence, youthful energy and disregard for (or, in more cases, ignorance of) defamation law means—for better or worse—it will often print what other publications won’t. Since the dissolution of the national newswire NZPA in 2011, Fairfax and APN’s domination of New Zealand’s media sphere has become even more difficult to ignore, and though no student media (Salient; Critic in Otago; Craccum in Auckland, plus the publications of smaller education providers) can compete with their scale or resources, an independent voice is increasingly rare.

Salient’s influence can perhaps be better measured in the number of contributors that go on to careers within the mainstream media after ‘getting good at journalism’, to paraphrase 1973-4 editor Roger Steele, on these pages. A survey by 1960 and 1963 editor Ian Grant suggests that just over 40 per cent of editors and staffers of 1960s Salient “continue to be involved with the media”, while the others most likely became lawyers, public servants or academics. A spell at Salient has contributed to the careers of, among others, the late historian Michael King; Queen’s Counsel Hugh Rennie; Metro editor Simon Wilson; National Business Review head Nevil Gibson; former Green MP Sue Kedgley; and 7 Days comedienne Michele A’Court.

But more important than Salient’s launching of an individual’s career, or its holding the University and VUWSA to account, is its contribution to student culture at Vic. Wellington won’t ever be the ‘student town’ that Dunedin is: its suburbs are too sprawling, its demography too diverse, its couches too nonflammable. Sometimes it’s hard to see university as anything other than daycare for 20-sometimes, just as it’s hard to see Salient as anything other than a convenient construction material. The fact remains, both have a distinguished and provocative history, and that Salient exists purely to speak to and of Vic students goes considerable way to unify us. As Roger Steele commented, “the power to put thoughts into words, and put words into the community, is a wonderful thing”—even if those words are, quoth Constance, “Female come is usually clear, sweet/mild tasting and odourless, which is pretty different from urine so that should also help to differentiate the two for you.”

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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