Towards the end of my time editing and campaigning against the closure of London Student last year, the editorial team and I launched a petition against the University of London cutting our funding and turfing us out of our office.
The university had funded London Student in its various incarnations – it was previously called Sennet and before that, Vincula – since at least the 1920s, and yet abruptly decided to shut it down last year – along with the students’ union it belonged to, the University of London Union (ULU).
We put a call-out on Twitter asking for names for our petition and got a good response from people who’d previously written for London Student. In the end, the petition failed – our budget was cut and our office taken away – but we’d discovered we had a fairly large group of successful journalists who’d worked on London Student in their student years who were backing us up.
Andrew North, BBC News correspondent, Kevin Fong, Panorama presenter and Anita Anand, presenter of Radio 4’s Any Answers, as well as journalists at The Times, the Guardian and the Observer, award winning press photographers and famous novelists, were just a few of the people who got in touch to sign the petition and offer help.
I’d not thought much about the journalists who’d worked on the newspaper in the past before this. But, as it turned out, some pretty big names in journalism had cut their teeth at London Student.
I got in touch with Anita Anand and asked her about the time she spent as features editor at London Student in the early ‘90s and how, if at all, it had prepared her for journalism as a career.
Did your experience at London Student prepare you for journalism and did it help you enter the career?
Yes. Absolutely. Working on London Student was my first experience of proper journalism and although that might sound lofty – working on a student newspaper being proper journalism – that’s exactly what we were doing. It was a really fertile time in student politics: the government were just doing away with grants and bringing in student loans, so there was a real feeling of activism on campus but also the notion that we might make a difference. It was a really exciting time.
Working on London Student may have meant long, unpaid work hours but it felt vital to record what was going on and we were glad to do it. I remember among the stories that I did, apart from some about student hardship, I worked on features warning about the rise of fundamentalism on London university campuses, which really pre-dated anyone talking about these things.
Another thing I loved about working at London Student was you could pick up the phone and say ‘hello I’m a journalist working for a newspaper’ – and you could get access to decision makers. So, one of the first people I interviewed was Tony Benn – wonderful Tony Benn. I spent the morning in his kitchen speaking to him about democracy, involvement, why it’s important to give the young a voice – the anti-Russell Brand theory if you like. So all of that was just fantastic – I loved it. I thought I wanted to be a journalist when I started university but after working at London Student, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
That’s fantastic. Do you still keep in contact with many other of the people who worked there at the time?
We were all from different backgrounds. I was one of the youngest – I think I was a first year when I started working there. Chris Hemblade was the one who got me involved – he tragically died recently. At the time working in features was such a, well, not lonely experience exactly but it was isolated – you did it in your own time you went off and you did interviews and I remember doing layouts and being the only person in the office when everyone else was at the bar. I watch the careers of other people I worked with with great interest.
And what did you do after you graduated and left London Student? What was the path you took into what you do now?
I was lucky. I had a proper paid job in my third year at university. I got the opportunity largely because I won feature writer of the year at the Guardian young journalist awards for my work at London Student. That happened in my second year. I also won a bursary – the Independent ran a competition again for features and I won that.
When I won the Guardian award I was called for an interview with a fledgling television station called TV Asia – it turned it into a screen test. So I was actually working for them while I was doing my third year finals and I carried on after I finished.
The small station was bought by Zee TV, an international station. I worked there for quite some time, became news editor and had a great time. Then I made a big jump and went to the BBC to present programs for them – which is where you will still find me today.
What are you up to now?
I work at Radio 4 presenting Any Answers. I also have a book out this month, Sophia, which is my pride and joy – It’s about a suffragette who also happens to be an Indian Princess and goddaughter to Queen Victoria, it sounds like a novel but is in fact a biography. Sophia battled on the streets with police and politicians, throwing herself at the prime minister’s car. Risking her life. Risking everything to get women the vote. There is a line from this story that goes straight back to the time I spent at London Student – in the sense of how important it is to have a voice and how important it is to be heard.
Is there anything about London Student that makes it special? I always thought the fact that you get to cover the whole of London, it was really quite unique and different from writing for a very campus specific student newspaper.
I’d agree with that, yes. We really didn’t dwell on parochial issues. We covered really big important things. It gave us a certain swagger, that probably annoyed other student newspapers. We had a huge beat. And we had so much going on and we had access. It’s a really influential paper. There were all sorts of huge demonstrations that went on, I remember. And I remember covering demonstrations where the chants were puerile. There was one against Ken Clarke, the Home Secretary at the time, which was “he’s big, he’s round, he bounces on the ground, Kenneth Clarke” and when I presented the Daily Politics on BBC2, one of my first interviews was with Ken Clarke. It felt weird. We were at London Student at a time when it mattered – when the student voice mattered.
I think that’s what we found as well. Towards the end, almost every front page had been a picture of a protest – we thought maybe we should have been covering other things but then realised that one of our roles was to cover protests. It wasn’t our aim, it’s just what we happened to do.
You do by accident, don’t you? You write what you see and one of my memorable stories was about a student who was living with HIV. I’m still proud of that. I thought that that was a very important bit of work to do – because in the 90s, the stereotype was that young healthy people couldn’t be HIV-positive. I hope we aren’t going back to those blasé and dangerous times.