Salient, Counting on Accountability
This year Salient celebrates its 76th year as “an organ of student opinion” at Victoria University. We think we’re looking pretty good for our age.
Founded in 1938 by one A.H. “Bonk” Scotney, Salient began as a fairly simple-looking newspaper, printed single-sided on thin paper slightly larger than A4. The yellowing copies we have of Salient’s predecessors featured articles produced on a typewriter, and headings drawn by hand. Yet for all its differences in appearance—the distinct lack of trendy fonts and colourful design—the spirit and content of these earlier magazines were largely the same: a 1940 issue of Salient boldly affirmed its commitment to vocalising student opposition to the war on one page, while on another page debated whether or not first years “possess a mind”.
As the magazine has matured, the primary role of Salient has remained the same: to provide a voice for the students of Victoria University. During its 76 year history, this voice has been used to entertain, to inform, and to hold the powers that be accountable. Naturally, the magazine’s history has not been without its controversies. throughout the second half of the 20th Century Salient kept students entertained through features such as ‘Girl of the Week’ (a sign of the times; we’re showing our age); informed with instructions on how to make a bomb; and kept the university on its toes with its lobbying on behalf of students (such as the campaign to introduce internal assessment throughout the academic year).
In more recent years, the magazine has made mainstream media headlines for a number of its bolder stunts. In 2005 the University obtained a court injunction to stop an issue of Salient from being distributed, as it contained information from leaked University Council documents indicating a proposed 5 to 10 per cent fee increase. Before going to print the story had already been leaked to other student magazines around the country, and was published in those magazines, on the internet, and picked up by mainstream media, despite Salient being gagged by the University. The leaked documents were returned, and Salient was distributed four days later. This is believed to be the only time that the University has attempted to prevent the publication of the magazine.
In addition to acting as a check on the University, Salient has also played a strong role in keeping VUWSA accountable to students over the years. In 2007, VUWSA’s acting Women’s Rights Officer Clelia Opie was dismissed from her role after Salient discovered that she had used over $4000 of students’ money to pay for calls to a psychic hotline. it appears that the psychics hadn’t seen that one coming.
For as long as Salient has existed, it has relied on student money to fund its existence. In the early days the magazine cost threepence a copy, but for a long time it has been funded more directly through fees paid by students at the beginning of the year. Before Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) was introduced, all students paid a levy to VUWSA at the beginning of each year, and part of this money was given to Salient. Despite this reliance on the Students’ association for funding, Salient has always enjoyed strong editorial independence from VUWSA, and as such were responsible for keeping the association accountable and transparent in their use of student money.
Following the introduction of VSM, student media is funded by a grant given to VUWSA by the University in their distribution of the Student Services levy that all students pay at the beginning of each year. When VSM was introduced, the University negotiated with VUWSA which of the association’s services the University would fund with the Student Services levy. Each of these services fall under a separate contract (eg. for o-Week) or grant (eg. for student media) between VUWSA and the University. On the one hand, these changes have gone a long way to ensuring that Students’ associations around the country must be much more stringent in their spending of student money. On the other hand, it has made Salient’s role of accountability harder to fulfill.
Under the previous model, Salient was explicitly allowed to attend VUWSA’s meetings and question their decisions in order to ensure that your money was being spent on services rather than psychics. Under the current model, the decisions about how student money will be spent are contained in confidential contracts. Requests for details of these contracts can be rejected on the grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’, and Salient is unable to report on most of what is discussed in VUWSA’s meetings, as it refers to the contents of these contracts.
Despite these difficulties, Salient continues to entertain, inform, and—to some extent—keep the powers that be accountable. and, if all else fails, there’s always lolcats and dick jokes.