Liz Hill says shame on Arts Council England for its reaction to public concerns over ATTL
An organisation’s reaction to public calls for an enquiry says a lot about the culture of that organisation. In recent weeks we have seen some jaw-dropping examples of organisations whose knee-jerk reactions to such situations have been to deny everything and attempt a cover-up – only to be faced later with embarrassing climb-downs, heads rolling and the inevitable loss of public trust in the institutions involved. This week it has been the BBC and the Jimmy Savile scandal; last week, the West Coast rail franchise debacle; the week before, the Hillsborough tragedy. And it’s not too long ago that we were reeling over revelations of child abuse by the clergy, MPs’ expenses and the ongoing Leveson enquiry. Who knows how long it will take for public perceptions of the church, the police, the BBC, the Press and the Government to recover – if ever.
Shame on Arts Council England (ACE) for adopting a similar strategy to the issues surrounding the Artists Taking the Lead (ATTL) awards in Yorkshire. Its attempts to cover up and explain away a series of actions that would ring alarm bells with any rational human being speak volumes about the culture of the organisation, compounding suspicions that there must be something serious to hide. The specifics of the ATTL case are deeply worrying for the arts sector, much of which is at the mercy of ACE as the single largest funder, whose primary role (whatever it might like to think) is ultimately to distribute taxpayers’ money to support the arts. The impression we are left with is of a grant-making body that is willing to break its own rules, defend the indefensible and refuse to even consider that its own staff may have at best made some very poor judgement calls, and at worst been manipulating the grant-giving process to give cash to their favoured few.
Particularly galling is that those most disadvantaged by the sorry saga in Leeds are the most vulnerable members of ACE’s ‘client’ base – individual artists. But when a public body manipulates its grant-giving in this way, the cost is not just the wasted time and energy of hopeful grant applicants who are directly disadvantaged when preferred bidders get the grants. Far more damaging in this case is the loss of trust of artists and arts organisations whose careers and livelihoods depend on public funding and those who distribute it.
A full independent investigation, properly documented and minuted (without the usual swathes of redactions that characterise most of ACE’s ‘public’ minutes) could reveal conclusively whether something sinister has been afoot, so why does ACE refuse to act? Perhaps Canon Dr Alan Billings gives the most likely explanation: “As individuals we may act with sympathy and generosity, putting the interests of others before our own. Yet in the social groups to which we belong – companies, public services, voluntary bodies, churches – we may well find ourselves under all sorts of pressures to collude in behaviour that is less generous, more selfish and sometimes very wrong indeed. These pressures are especially strong where we are proud of the groups to which we belong, know they do good, but think their interests or their reputation are threatened. And that is an especial danger where there is a culture of rank, authority or deference.” ACE is by no means the first public institution to close ranks to protect its own and deny inconvenient truths, but that doesn’t make its actions any less shocking.
Ironically, I’m going to leave it to Mail on Sunday columnist Stephen Glover to sum up my own reflections on institutional cover-ups: “Nearly all the institutions which I was taught to revere as a child have turned out to be self-serving, incompetent or dishonest — the police, Parliament, the Church, the civil service, government, the City and, I regret to say, some parts of the Press. A dear and distinguished friend of mine blames the relentless media for hollowing out one institution after another, and lowering them in the public esteem. I’m afraid he’s wrong. The media have simply shone lights where they used not to be shone, and illuminated practices which all of us had hoped did not exist.”