Off the record

We spoke with student journalists about what it's like to report from the National Union of Students National Conference.

Notorious for a ban on filming on conference floor, the National Union of Students (NUS) National Conference can be a complex event for student media to cover. As part of Et Cetera’s look at non-factional groups at NatCon, we spoke with student journalists there about the role reporting plays in contributing to the representative capacity of the national student body.

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Ashleigh Barraclough & Ed Pitt
Farrago
University of Melbourne

How have you guys found reporting from NatCon?

AB: It’s difficult I guess. You’ve got to constantly be aware of exactly what’s going on. So generally what that involves is looking up on the screen and looking at the number of the policy being discussed, doing a quick control+F in the policy booklet to find that policy. Read the policy name, look at the actions that it entails. It’s too much to just read the entire thing. And then just start typing everything out. Which is difficult because you’re trying to get quotes, names, factions, universities.

But it’s been a good experience. Because people do really engage with your reporting on social media, and people actually care. And while there are the memes that no one wants student media here, I don’t think they actually think that. I’ve enjoyed reporting on it.

EP: I’m not as positive in my assessment. I feel like they’re very unsupportive of student media. We kind of fill a token roll. They’re like “Yup, we’ve got media here”. And they don’t really care if the coverage is in depth, or if anyone’s actually reading us. It’s just so that they can say they have got some media there.

“The ban on filming and streaming isn’t even discussed. It’s just done, in such a cursory manner”

AB: Media affiliation is really really expensive, it’s like $1015 including accommodation. We came as unofficial observers though. We did get paid for by our union, but we’re not officially here. We managed to get the $200 observer tickets. It’s a ridiculous amount of money and I’m not sure why.

EP: And then there are other things. It’s very difficult for me to have my laptop on for the whole day, running on battery. It’s not a very hospitable environment for anyone in media. The final thing I’d add to that point is that the ban on filming and streaming isn’t even discussed. It’s just done, in such a cursory manner. It’s really done because they want to protect their reputation going forward and also because they know that if students saw this they would probably take interest in how much their uni is spending in affiliation fees. And then they’d either disaffiliate, or more students would want to get involved. And then certain factions would lose elections, and their power would be diluted. So there’s a perverse incentive to actually keep NUS fairly small and insular.

What is the toughest part about showing up to NatCon as student media?

AB: For me it’s just being so on game. Constantly being aware of each single little thing, because there’s a lot of information you need to collect. But also it’s just a tiring experience, reporting all day. Because you’ve just got to be aware all the time. We’re lucky at Farrago, because there’s four of us, which meant we could kind of rotate it around. But for the other student media, where they only had one or two people, they couldn’t do that. It would’ve been exhausting.

EP: The burnout is real, even within the space of just a few hours. You need like an hour to just kind of be doing something a bit more chill. I was quite surprised at how useful the excel spreadsheet of delegates and votes that we created ended up being. That helped out a lot.

The lack of clarity around media rights is another issue. I went up to talk to the secretariat (the NatCon organiser) today because I was pretty certain that we were allowed to film during the office bearer reports session. I was told that we couldn’t film. I said that I was fairly certain we could. The secretariat then went and asked Sophie Johnston (the president of NUS) who said that we could in fact film during the session. But by that time, the last report was being given. Things like that aren’t great.

What would you like to see change for student media here?

EP: Filming allowed. (AB nods in agreement). I think there’s also some disdain for student media because so often the content that is put out is negative of NUS. Or at least the coverage of NatCon is negative. I would like to see better coverage of NUS in general, or at least I’d like people involved with NUS to be aware that we don’t just report on NatCon. We just report on it a lot because it’s a fairly major thing.

AB: But also a lot of the time we just don’t really report on the stuff that the NUS is doing throughout the year. Which is kind of something we were talking about changing. Potentially doing a tracker of whether they’re fulfilling policies throughout the year.

“There’s a perverse incentive to actually keep NUS fairly small and insular”

Finally, do you think there are parallels between reporting on NatCon, with how the mainstream media reports on senior politics?

AB: I’d say it’s quite similar actually. I think we saw how the mainstream media covers politics on a state and national level and I think we aimed to do it in the same tone that they do it. It is kind of like live-blogging from press gallery. Though here it’s more casual, you can kind of joke around, you can have a little bit more of a perspective than you would for writing a hard news article. But we still maintain our impartiality. We’re always careful to not be too biased. We don’t applaud motions, and stuff like that.

EB: We do definitely aspire to be professional or be seen as professional in our coverage. But as you say, it is a bit more casual. So we call out shit when we hear shit. From all factions.

AB: Yeah I guess that’s just the thing. It’s about not letting yourself be influenced by your own personal opinions. But if someone does something wrong, you draw attention to that a little bit. So yeah, I’d say it is quite similar to the way the mainstream media would report on politics.

EB: I would also say that student media is more similar to senior media, than student politicians are similar to senior politicians.


Farrago
articles from NatCon:
NUS NatCon Coverage
NUS NatCon: A Summary

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Ryan Dell
Vertigo (Ryan has since left)
University of Technology Sydney 

How have you found reporting from NatCon so far?

It has been a much more intense experience than expected – from a scheduling perspective. The hall where conference takes place is booked until 8pm each night, but conference can seemingly push into overtime. Having friends in political factions helps with having a rough idea of what is going on. In terms of how the delegates behave, I expected the heckling and paper-eating, as they’re NatCon trademarks. Some of that stuff is not as common as expected, but the conference is more intense and exhausting an experience than anticipated.

What is the toughest part about showing up to NatCon as student media?

Being here as the sole representative of a publication. Focusing on one job means doing so at the expense of another task, like getting a quote, or not reporting about the speeches. Not being able to split my focus and having two different jobs as a correspondent has been tough.

What would you like to see change for student media here?

There isn’t enough of an outreach to anyone who chooses to be here independently, as not a member of a political faction. Even with basic information about accommodation or scheduling, purely logistical information is hard to come across. This creates a huge communication issue preventing either independent students or student media from coming to this event. The NUS and NatCon aren’t reaching out or trying to educate, inform, or solicit the input of anyone outside their circles. If you don’t have connections, it is ludicrous.

I expected the heckling and paper-eating”

Finally, do you think there are parallels between reporting on NatCon, with how the mainstream media reports on senior politics?

Honestly, no. In federal politics there is a media policy, and a legal and ideological precedent. This is very insular, everything happening here is reflective of student politics in general. It is an environment where people are allowed to operate without certain accountability. Whereas in ‘real’ politics there is a minimum expectation of a certain amount of accountability or responsibility in my opinion, which isn’t reflected in student politics or NatCon.


Vertigo
article from NatCon:
NUS NatCon 2017: Who, What, Why?

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Skanda Panditharatne
ANU Observer
Australian National University

How have you found reporting from NatCon so far?

Challenging. Certain things are really frustrating – all the yelling, the personal attacks on delegates, which I find vicariously tough. Socially, it’s difficult at times with the delegates. The media groups are lovely though. It’s good to be able to discuss the difficulties of reporting here. It’s nice to have that sense of a collaborative atmosphere. But NatCon is more challenging than expected. A Socialist Alternative member came up behind me yesterday and started criticising what I was writing, as I was writing it.

What’s the toughest part about showing up to NatCon as student media?

All the factions here group together and bond together, and get solidarity from that. As student media, you don’t get that as much. It can be a lonely task. It is a hostile environment and can be intimidating. We bid for two editors from the Observer to come and got SSAF funding for one.

A Socialist Alternative member came up behind me yesterday and started criticising what I was writing, as I was writing it”

What would you like to see change for student media here?

I’d like to see a stronger bond between student media, allowing more people to fall back on. Live streaming alone would make a huge difference too. It’s extremely draining to cover everything, especially by yourself. You can’t walk out of the conference or take a break for a minute. It would allow us to write analysis pieces rather than just blogging everything that is going on.

Finally, do you think there are parallels between reporting on NatCon, with how the mainstream media reports on senior politics?

Maybe, the mainstream media gets the benefits of leaks and politicians trying to push reporting in a particular way. We get a bit of that, but not nearly the same. It’s tougher. There are some parallels in the sense of the closed off factions.


ANU Observer 
article from NatCon:
Backroom deals, paper swallowing & factional warfare: your guide to the NUS & NatCon

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Bella Dimattina
Woroni
Australian National University

How have you found reporting from NatCon so far?

Bewildering, confusing and frustrating. It frustrates me that we have no data coming out officially from the organisers or the secretariat. Even on the first day, the little things like conference floor location and times, let alone information like how many delegates there are, the voting and proxies. We’re not given any of that information. It’s a very odd segregation between the news and the factions – somewhat like real life, but not what you would expect. The hostility is odd, and the way people would talk with you – and stop and say like, “oh no, you’re media”.

What’s the toughest part about showing up to NatCon as student media?

Standing by whilst people are talking about your welfare on conference floor. It is also hard to stop your own reporting from getting too cynical and harsh, and mixing up feelings about your own representation.

It frustrates me that we have no data coming out officially from the organisers”

What would you like to see change for student media here?

If we all met a day early and got together and discussed issues. If we had a training with student media who’ve been here before on things like information about conference and how it’s disseminated.  

Also some basic self care. The student media here have now built a little support network. But it would have been nice to have it at the start. Even meeting online before NatCon would have made the experience less isolating.

It’s also hard balancing what is obviously a national event with the fact that you have been paid to come here by your university, so reporting has to be specific to your university context. I wrote an article that was really specific to ANU about the ANU internship program, and another one about queer representation, with one line relating to ANU’s queer collective. I submitted it knowing full well that it wasn’t relevant to ANU’s context specifically. I was writing about something that was not relevant to an ANU context because I felt it was important.

Finally, do you think there are parallels between reporting on NatCon, with how the mainstream media reports on senior politics?

I probably can’t answer that question because I’ve never written on mainstream politics.


Woroni 
articles from NatCon:
The NUS has a new executive: will they be able to fix the organisation’s many, many problems?
-Stupol schoolies: everything you need to know about NatCon and the NUS

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