The first issue of the Otago student magazine for 2020 had barely hit campus before it was making headlines in the wider media. The cover was censored by Facebook, and a furious editorial denounced party politics, promising to give them a miss. Josie Adams speaks to editor Sinead Gill about a sparkling, sweary start to the year.
Every incoming editor of Critic – Te Arohi has a long line of censorships and celebrations to live up to. One or two of them in years past have made some questionable choices, but few have provoked such controversy as swiftly as Sinead Gill. Her debut issue features an editorial that some people are finding even more offensive than its cover, a bare ass clutching 50 cigarettes in its cleft.
The editorial’s headline, “Fuck the 2020 election and fuck anyone who wants me to cover it”, was a succinct summary of Gill’s stance. In a general election year, the publication of the Otago University Students’ Association won’t be covering party politics. This pissed some people off.
The Spinoff: There are lots of responses to your editorial, but I can’t see many from Otago students. How do your readers feel about it?
Sinead Gill: Most students responded more to the butt on the cover, so it’s kind of a weird experience to have an issue with my editorial from people who aren’t its audience. The whole point of it was to tell students, who are my audience, that I’m not going to let politicians use my magazine to peddle their messages because they can’t be bothered coming to Dunedin.
What motivated your no-party-politics policy?
I hosted interviews with a couple of politicians that were in Dunedin for O-Week. I reached out to every single political party asking if they were here, but my position was that if you’re not actually coming to campus and talking to our students, I’m not going to do your job for you.
I’m being paid by these students. I’m writing for them. I need to not pander to people who are going to have a problem with it. So that’s why I wrote [the editorial] the way it was, because I wanted students to know that Critic covers issues that are important to them. So much of it gets lost in the haze of politicians throwing shit at each other to see what sticks.
Students know that if something is in the magazine they shouldn’t just glaze over it, like in previous election years. I want them to take notice [of what’s in the magazine], because it’s important.
Sorry, let me know if I go on a rant.
You’re good. What’s your guide for what’s important and relevant to Otago students?
A few of my staff members have science backgrounds, so they’ve learned about methodology and data collection. We want to do a kind of Colmar-Brunton-style poll tailor-made for Otago University students, and find out exactly what they’re thinking about, because I don’t want to make that call.
That’s an unusually evidence-based strategy for a Critic editor. With that guiding you, how do feel about being told to “grow the fuck up and stop being a crybaby”?
I’d ask these people if they actually read the editorial, because what a lot of them have an issue with is young people communicating the way young people do. I did have a stalk of [the Twitter user who posted that], and the others, and they said I was being edgy. I think they just don’t like me using the “fuck” word. They seemed shocked that I’m vulgar, and also shocked at what I’m saying. It’s not even a hot take! It’s something everyone says: party politics is a cesspit!
I’m very privileged in my position as editor of a student magazine, because I can make that call [to not write about party politics]. I could make the life of my news editor much easier, because we could have two pages a week of random bullshit happening. I find that lazy.
Sad & tbh small-minded to think that all uni students care about is fees. Has she heard about climate change or mental health? Or does she just exist in an ego-centric bubble? Happy to debate her any day. https://t.co/uca4H9eiom
— Clare Curran (@clarecurranmp) February 25, 2020
So is this a policy you came up with before hiring staff? Did your news editor know this would happen?
Joel McManus was editor in 2018, and that was when I started writing for Critic. His first rule was: if it’s not happening on campus, why are we writing about it? And Charlie [O’Mannin, 2019 editor] absolutely reinforced that. Now, I am.
Even if people aren’t spending hours of their day poring over political hot takes in their news feed, there’s going to be plenty of messages about what’s going on.
Critic isn’t single-handedly turning people off politics. People are off politics. We’re saying what people are already thinking.
What do you think is the role of student media?
Our job is to keep our student union accountable, and the university – because there’s always something shady happening there – and, from there, the wider community.
All student media is located on different campuses, so to me our number one priority is reporting on things happening on the Otago campus.
Critic is really lucky. It’s really popular. In an OUSA survey something like 95% of students read us, so there is a lot of power and responsibility that comes with that. But mostly, Critic should be something students can see themselves in.
What if a party politician like Clare Curran offered a student-specific, campus-specific interview – would you take it?
I interviewed David Clark, and he wasn’t responding to any questions about tertiary policy. He was like, “you’ll have to ask Chris Hipkins about that”. Mate, you’re the MP for Dunedin North. Your people are students. If he or Clare want to give me an insight, I’d love that. But I doubt they will.
Are you going to accept Clare’s challenge to debate?
Is that a line politicians use? Are they afraid people are going to say, “oh, of course I won’t debate you, that’s scary!” Well, I’ve decided that if she brings the merlot, then the Critic office is 640 Cumberland Street.
In 1996, a young Paula Bennett said “fees suck and fee increases piss me off … don’t vote for fuck wits”. It strikes me as a similar sentiment to your editorial. Will you, too, one day embrace that which you despise: central government?
Fuck no. Obviously politics is important and everyday, but I don’t see the priority of politicians being everyday politics.
OK, this is the real goss, and I’m ready for the backlash: in 2018 I ran for postgrad rep, and lost by two votes. I felt obligated to do it, which I’m sure every politician says, but there is a moment where I thought, “I really want things to change, maybe I should be productive about it.”
I’ve felt far more productive working for Critic, in terms of accomplishing things for students, then I ever would have on the OUSA exec.
You’ve been censored on Facebook, you’ve pissed off Twitter, what’s in the second issue?
The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.