Oxford University Students Union (OUSU) was reported to have replaced 'he' and 'she' with 'ze'Matt Brown

Another day, another wave of irrelevant and uninspired journalists misreporting student politics with inflammatory headlines on transgender pronouns. 

Okay, so that’s probably not an accurate or fair reflection of any of the writers reporting on pronoun-gate – the most recent student-focused outrage to spread across newspapers and their websites. But, given their apparent affinity for disregarding fact and accuracy when reporting on such things, that feels appropriate.

Such is the frequency of articles belittling students for any rejection of the status quo, that these articles blur together in a quiet rumble of baby-boomer indignation.

The current outrage started when an article, first published by The Sunday Times, claimed that students at Oxford University had been instructed by their student union to abandon the traditional ‘he’ and ‘she’ in favour of the gender-neutral pronoun ‘ze’. The article claimed that the order has been given in a student leaflet, and that Cambridge was “moving in the same direction”, citing an irrelevant quote from CUSU’s Welfare Officer as evidence. Although the piece was barely 200 words long, within a day of its publication the story had exploded. It was picked up and reworked by myriad publications, including The Independent, The Metro, and Huffpost UK.

With this burst of coverage came the predictable backlash. The comments below The Sunday Times article were melodramatic and mournful, littered with accusations of a “snowflake generation” and one commenter describing student unions as a “useless bunch of pc fools”. Another commenter’s response was wonderfully concise – “I begin to despair”.

Within a day of this story being reported, it was debunked. OUSU released a statement denying they had ever produced any such leaflet, and expressing confusion at the claim. When asked for a source, The Sunday Times Education Editor referenced a policy document that OUSU had published almost half a year ago, which encourages students to identify their preferred pronoun when speaking, but includes no mention of the pronoun ‘ze’.

More than just an example of sloppy journalism, this story exemplifies a growing problem. Every newspaper and political magazine has, at some point, turned its claws on student politics, eager to hound students for the way in which they are trying to change their universities. For some journalists, their minds seem to be occupied with little else than the mundane internal arguments of educational institutions, ripe for the picking for another kneejerk article. These arguments around gender politics, no-platforming and the like, are often just trivial squabbling within student populations. But the press wilfully misinterprets these as the of the end of free speech as we know it. When they treat them as such, it is no wonder that older generations look on with disdain.

The journalistic obsession with student politics achieves very little other than fuelling inter-generational contempt. Baby boomers view students as delicate and mollycoddled children. Students view baby boomers as ‘past-it’ and narrow-minded. Both camps view each other as out-of-touch with the “real world”. Neither is inclined to change.

For those of us who would welcome some change in the mood of student politics, this is frustrating. Consistent exaggeration and distortion of the problems at hand, as well as the sarcastic tone often used to approach them, undermines any genuine effort to counter them.

A recent example is offered by the reporting on the student association at Strathclyde University, who refused to let a pro-life group affiliate with them. Was this the right decision by the student association? In my view, absolutely not. But were these news websites awash with balanced and insightful comments as to why? Hardly. The debate is epitomised by one piece on The Times website, entitled “Speak freely to make Generation Snowflake melt”. When this is the quality of the opposing opinion offered to students, it is no wonder that they choose to ignore it.

If such pieces achieve anything, it is to ignore the students they seek to support. So transfixed are journalists on ‘snowflakes’ that hamper after safe spaces and no-platforming policies, they give little thought (nor column inches) to those who oppose them. Ironically, their crusade against students who wish to close off debate is stifling a key participant – one much more qualified to play a role.

In one of the most turbulent times in recent political history, it seems odd to focus such attention on the niche world of student politics. Whatever older generations’ view on the standard of modern university debate may be, it is time they learnt it was a debate for students to have, and one in which they should no longer demand the spotlight