Critic Scandals  Through The Ages:  An Inexhaustive  Account

Critic Scandals Through The Ages: An Inexhaustive Account

Now in its 89th year, Critic is widely known as an upright and distinguished Publication, where people turn for only the most rigorous of journalistic standards. LOL, JK. Brittany Mann takes a look at the scandals that have shaped Critic over the years.

It seems like the height of journalistic narcissism to write a feature about the very magazine in which it will be published, but here we all are.

Since 1925, Critic, in its various incarnations, has been the capricious mouthpiece of Otago University’s students. Whether tabloid-sized or quarter-fold, glossy or matte, the missive Dunedin loves to hate has always prided itself on its coverage (however expletive-laced and hyperbolic) of whatever controversy happens to be affecting the southern-most university on the planet at a given point in time.

But what of the scandals that have befallen Critic itself? For if this year has confirmed anything, it is that the magazine is not immune to controversy – whether within its pages or within the walls of its newly painted office.

David and Goliath

The passage of years has made the scandals of old appear trivial through the retrospective lens by which we contemplate them, but you can be sure that at the time, these events were as outrageous as, say, a former editor being escorted out of the office by police whilst his colleagues recorded the whole saga on video.

Take 1931, for example, when the editors of The Critic (as it then was) criticised the Board of Discipline for fining two students and standing down a third for insulting a lecturer at a particularly rowdy dance at Allen Hall (#YOLO). This was arguably the first real conflict between students and the University authorities and the latter were not having it – no sir, they were not. The next issue of The Critic began with a statement from the Chairman of the Professorial Board calling the editorial a “distinct breach of discipline.” The editors apologised and round one went to the Board: the stage was now set for an infinite cycle of line-crossing that continues to this day, whereby the magazine offends, sparks complaints, and apologises, only to promptly go and exasperate all over again in due course.

In 1932, the University Council stepped things up a notch by standing down that year’s editor, medical student Joe Small, after The Critic ran a series of articles that lived up to the magazine’s moniker and criticised the rather oversensitive Board for banning that year’s Capping procession and ball because of past drunken behaviour. When The Critic was resurrected in Semester Two of that year, it had been reincarnated as a University puppet, spewing Council propaganda and vowing to end the “delusions of injustice among students.”

Indeed, historically speaking, many of the scandals Critic has withstood have pertained to the University trying to censor it. In 1934, the revolutionising effect of the Great Depression saw an unprecedented level of student interest in politics, and members of the Independent Radicals Club were nominated for positions on the OUSA Executive to counter what they deemed the “intolerable censorship” of The Critic that year.

Two years later, foreshadowing scandals to come, the Intellectual Affairs Representative on the Executive banned a whole issue of The Critic after it reprinted a cartoon from Tomorrow magazine that had zoomorphised the University as an ass (hee-haw). The recently elected OUSA President, a radical student by the name of Douglas P. Kennedy, saw this as an opportunity to make a point about freedom of speech, and took it upon himself to distribute copies of the banned issue around North Dunedin under the cover of darkness, like Santa on Christmas Eve.

Falus (Insert Witty Pun Here)

The radical/ conservative student schism would be immortalised forever in 1965 when rival publication Falus, er, sprung up. Claiming to be “The Official Organ of the Beardies and Weirdies and the Industrial Union of Workers,” Falus existed to counter Critic’s (they dropped the The in the early 40s) “government propaganda.” Not to be outdone by one measly issue of Critic depicting a drawing of a donkey, it was not long before Falus was outlawed from the Union building.

Just like its rival and forebear had for the past 30-odd years, Falus soon began to challenge OUSA, filling the vacuum left by Critic becoming a lapdog of the Establishment. After the University used its newly developed accommodation regulations to evict a male flatmate from an otherwise all-female flat on Union Street in June 1967, Falus became the short-lived crowd favorite at Otago University. Even as Falus championed gender diversity in student accommodation, Critic Editor Charles Draper brushed off the issue as a “petty infringement of what we consider our glorious democratic right of liberty,” a statement that epitomised just how out-of-touch Critic had become.

Falus, however, was eventually consigned to the dustbin of history, and Critic emerged from behind its editorial Iron Curtain to return to doing what it did best: enraging minorities. In the halcyon days of 1977, when second-wave, radical feminism was at its zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) Critic published an insulting cartoon and, surprise surprise, incurred the wrath of a lesbian on campus.

Oh, how history repeats itself. The woman fulminated that she and the rest of the Sisterhood were rejecting men “wholesale, for your lies, your deceptions, your lack of convictions, your preoccupations with property (us), your precarious virility …” At the time, it would seem that Critic was too preoccupied with increasingly vocal Malaysian and Maori students to pay much attention, presumably to the abject dismay of the emerging and reactionary men’s rights lobby on campus. (Luckily, it would seem that Dunedin’s feminists have softened up a bit since then – if the magnanimous acceptance of Sam McChesney’s apology for recent rape comics is anything to go by.)

That Drug-Rape Issue

Enter the 21st century, and Critic continued to conjure scandals out of thin air. The magazine totally outdid itself in 2006 when it managed to get an issue published in September of the previous year banned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification. Under former editor (and more recently Green Party List MP) Holly Walker, the offending issue placed “an instructional drug-rape article beside a positive profile of a man who makes a living by filming the extreme degradation and humiliation of women for sexual arousal,” and, according to the Office, “promoted sexual violence and criminal activity.”

It doesn’t get a lot more scandalous than the national censor making it a criminal offense to possess an issue of your magazine, especially in a liberal democracy like New Zealand. But “Diary of a drug rapist – no means no, but if they can’t talk, they can’t turn you down” made headlines around the country (and indeed around the world) after the Censor received complaints from the usual suspects – Critic’s publisher, the New Zealand Drug Rape Trust, Rape Crisis Dunedin, the Society for the Promotion of Community Standards and the police.

Today, the infamous issue has become the stuff of urban legend and, happily, a précis of the feature can be found in an appendix to this one. Just kidding! It is true, however, that Critic was allowed to maintain a copy of the hallowed issue, which, despite being passed from editor to editor in a Freemason-style liturgy upon their inauguration since 2006, the current editor was unable to locate for me at the time of this writing.

That Homeless Vagrant Article

There is a certain irony in the fact that Critic presumably enjoyed a surge in readership – if not popularity – after this ruling, as students and the general public alike must have held their breath to see whose feathers the magazine would ruffle next.

In 2010, it fell to the Otago Mental Health Support Trust (OMHST) to complain to the Press Council about “The Bum at the Bottom of the World” feature in the 24 May issue, whose standfirst read: “Dunedin’s most well-loved celebrities are not politicians or sports stars, they are vagrants known to most as Speedy and Joan the Butcher. Thomas Redford spent time on the streets to find out the truth about Dunedin’s homeless.”

The OMHST called the article “poorly written, poorly researched, in disgustingly bad taste, defamatory, discriminatory, and possibly inciting violence” and its complaint was duly upheld. Editor Ben Thomson apologised in a 19 July editorial entitled “A Bum Note,” and the same issue featured a more legitimate feature on homelessness that remedied the inaccuracies contained in Redford’s, as well as various letters of complaint regarding the latter.

Perennial targets of Critic’s budding Gonzo journalists, the people mentioned in the 24 May feature were also the subject of a “Bunch of Fives” column (where students were stopped on campus and asked five questions) in which the respondents had to say whom they would kill, fuck or marry. The subsequent OMHST complaints about the column and the perceived lack of sincerity in Thomson’s apology were not upheld.

That Critic Incest

The general University population likely neither knows nor cares about the degree to which Critic staff members routinely get with each other, but rest assured that such larking about is as incurably “Critic” as the magazine’s proclivity towards publishing poorly-executed rape jokes. Indeed, the not-so-clandestine trysts that have taken place over recent years have become so elaborately interwoven that one would need to utilise all of the gratuitously large Critic office whiteboard just to get one’s head around them.

Particular intra-office scandals of note include an unnamable editor having anal sex with a member of the sales team on the editor’s desk, and a text sent by an editor to a subordinate that suggested the two “hang out away from critic sometime (read fuck).” In contemporary terms, is it scandalous that Critic’s gender issues writer and rape comic curator have been shacking up to try out Cosmopolitan sex tips? I’ll let you be the judge of that one.

The Elephant (or Eagle) In the Room

As you are no doubt painfully aware, the biggest scandal to befall Critic this year was the suspension of maverick former editor Callum Fredric by OUSA General Manager Darel Hall. This was followed by Fredric’s appearance at, and subsequent trespass from, the Critic office on Monday 6 May. After Fredric was asked to leave by police, Critic staff dutifully avoided eye contact with one another and then hustled, along with various members of the Planet Media advertising team, to the Staff Club for a stiff drink.

The entire staff sworn to secrecy, within hours there were not so much leaks as floods regarding Callumgate, with Kiwiblog, Salient, the Otago Daily Times and even the Christchurch Press clamouring for information and weighing in on the saga as it unfolded. Fredric having begun legal proceedings against OUSA that very morning, Hall ultimately chose to pay out rather than go to court; Fredric received a figure initially reported as $35,000, but now believed to be in the region of $20,000, and resigned as editor (though his Facebook “About” does not currently reflect this).

Students were to be disappointed when, after Critic (now under Sam McChesney) made public its intentions to publish the reasons behind Fredric’s suspension, the latter threatened further legal action and McChesney’s subsequent editorial was a string of nonsensical words interspersed with blacked-out sentences.

Basking the glow of his windfall (which he chose to celebrate with an event entitled “Settlement Drinks with the One True Editor”), Fredric then jetted off to Japan for some R&R. There were also rumours circulating at the time that Fredric planned to start a rival publication (reminiscent of the mighty Falus of yore) with the settlement money.

Whilst it is uncertain how much progress Fredric has made thus far with regards to this venture, a quick perusal of his Facebook page would suggest that he is currently preoccupied with promoting a start-up by the name of The Chicken Cube Cooperative, whereby chickens who have been zombified at birth – and are thus unable to feel discomfort – will be sold as ethical meat at battery cost (just as soon as one of these fabled chickens is actually created).

Critic: Suffering Fools Gladly Since 1925

Over the years, Critic has crossed the line more times than that its editors have gotten with its interns, often for crossing the line’s own sake: to provoke a few cheap laughs at the expense of various minority groups on campus as well as generate fodder for its somewhat erroneous “Letters” section. It can be a dubious honour to be on staff, standing on the shoulders of alumni like Paul Oestreicher, Chris Trotter, Michael Laws, James K. Baxter and Joe Stockman. But you have to hand it to us – we take as good as we give: Critic isn’t New Zealand’s longest-running student publication by accident.
This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2013.
Posted 4:47pm Sunday 18th August 2013 by Brittany Mann.