Red Tape/Red Faces

Nearly 20 years ago, a bright-eyed Anthony Levin ran for the Tharunka editorship. It was on a progressive-left ticket, and really only because one of his friends asked if he was interested. He got the position, alongside Alex Tyrell, and together they edited one of the most conceptually interesting years of Tharunka in its history. With his first editorial, Levin attacked the ‘Apathet Movement’ amongst university students – a disengagement from student affairs, highlighting that UNSW was especially poor in it student-voter participation rates.

This editorial would go on to inform the team’s enduring attitude. That year, Tharunka pushed hard for student engagement and began to find themselves as the antagonists, not just against the university, but also the student body itself. For this 70th anniversary, I sat down and spoke with Anthony about his editorship. As he sits for our interview, he presents as a little older, and a little wiser than the student whose photos I saw in old issues. Now he works as a human rights lawyer for Legal Aid, but professes he still writes on the side, never giving up that passion. He tells me that Tharunka was above all for him, a chance to understand his own values. The stories, controversies, and clashes on campus – whether they involved him or not – allowed him a chance to re-evaluate his stances on issues like bureaucracy and freedom of speech. This was especially true when Federal Minister Philip Ruddock was shouted down on campus during a speech.

Anthony recounts the story: “I can’t recall exactly who invited Philip Ruddock to speak at UNSW, but it felt like a rare opportunity to engage with a high-profile federal politician. He was the member for Berowra and the Minister for Immigration and Indigenous Affairs. He came to speak at a time when the issue of asylum seekers and Australia’s border patrol was an absolute hot-button issue. There was enormous uproar on campus amongst people who were politically active, and more widely too. There was also a bit of a schism. At the event there were people who genuinely wanted to hear what he said, and there were people who were absolutely staunch and believed the only way to respond to him was to shout him down, and that’s what happened. He bumbled his way through his prepared speech, drowned out almost completely the whole time by a cacophony of shouting and abuse. There were people who were really disappointed about that and others who felt it was the proper response.

That prompted Tharunka to write about freedom of speech, where the lines of that freedom stood, and whether it served its purpose on that day. My response was rather hedged, I was sitting on the fence. I certainly was very against the government policies of the time, but also wondered about inviting a high-profile politician to campus only to then inhibit them from speaking. Others said he has and had plenty of mouthpieces, and the campus shouldn’t have been one. I’m sympathetic to that view. I don’t know if you’d call it a political low point, but it certainly was one of the more charged events on campus at that time and one I was part of.

Levin then moves on to talk about Tharunka’s clashes with the university gym and administration, as well as the legendary Red Tape issue. “One particularly memorable clash was early on, maybe our third or fourth issue, we’d been dropping our issues off at the uni-gym. They wrote to us saying ‘Tharunka is not appropriate here, and we’ve put them all in the bin because its inappropriate for children’. That really pissed us off.

We felt that it was our campus, our student fees were being used to refurbish parts of the gym, and we felt really aggrieved that they’d be so rude to not return them and speak to us about it, and there was a part of campus where Tharunka wasn’t welcome. We took pretty strong umbrage to that and we then went on a bit of a campaign to get Tharunka back into the campaign. We did really silly things like surreptitiously stuffing it into places around the gym and inside it, and irritating stuff. It was a moment where there was a sense where the university wasn’t really for us, but against it. That crystallised.

The UNIGYM Tharunka (2002)

From then, we became more and more outraged. More willing to provoke in extreme ways. The issues of Tharunka that year became conceptually more targeted, but also more provocative. There was a more singular vision of what we wanted to do. I never thought we were serious journalists, and I certainly don’t hold us in the same category as some of the older editors who were far more serious people and far more sophisticated in their approaches to issues.

But they were also issues that were happening during their times. Talking about people like Wendy Bacon and Frank Moorehouse, there were very serious issues they were dealing with at their time. We weren’t dealing with the same level. There were other political issues going on, but we were more focused on who our antagonist was. We became the antagonist against the university because of that, and also the student body to some degree.

[We tried] to say “Look, this publication is for you and is an opportunity for you to not just be a passive reader but contribute in some way, and you’re not using it”. It was about halfway through the year that we shifted our approach in how we published the newspaper. We had a sense that the university was overly bureaucratic and generally not for the students. We were increasingly incensed and frustrated by different aspects of university bureaucracy, so we decided to publish what we called a ‘Red Tape Issue’ which focused on bureaucracy.

There were serious pieces as well as satirical pieces that sought to lampoon the way the university functioned. The way of manifesting our feelings was by physically putting red tape on every single issue. So we taped the newspaper together from front to back cover, and we did that for thousands of copies. We sat up until AM hours of the night taping every single issue”.

“People picked them up, and when they tried to open it, they couldn’t, or it’d rip, or they’d have to peel the tape off. It was just a performative way of saying “the university is kind of fucked, the systems aren’t working, and if they are, they aren’t exactly working for you”. That’s how we felt at the time.

We went around marauding different parts of the university, barging into the Chancellery and demanding we see certain things and going around to little pockets of the university that never got any attention and basically raising eyebrows on the way. We were pretty brazen and stupid, but at the same time, doing what young student editors and activists are meant to do. Question, interrogate, and demand that things could be improved.”

Tharunka’s ‘Red Tape’ Edition (2002)

 

Photographic and Print Material Courtesy of Tharunka


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