What do Starbucks, the Leveson inquiry and Arts Council England have in common? Liz Hill makes some suggestions.
It can be rather amusing when children try to back-fill a story to get themselves out of trouble. “The dog ate my homework, miss” is just the tip of an iceberg of lame excuses they use to cover their shortcomings. But excuses weaken relationships, and when we grow up, we realise that apologies and mature discussions of the underlying issues are what engender trust, strengthen relationships and enable problems to be solved. So the type of sophistry used by Arts Council England (ACE) to justify its approach to the Artists Taking the Lead (ATTL) programme in Yorkshire does nothing but stoke up perceptions of a self-serving organisation that protects its own at the expense of those it funds.
To reinvent history by suggesting that the title of the programme ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ was referring to the project selection process, and that the naïve artists who thought they were in with a chance of turning their artistic dreams into reality were ‘mistaken’ about the nature of the funding scheme, is insulting in the extreme. ACE avoids implicating its own decision-makers by laying the blame for the sorry set of circumstances surrounding the Yorkshire ATTL selection process firmly at the door of the ‘guidelines’, presumably on the basis that an inanimate object is in no position to fight back to protect its reputation. Tempting though it is to ask ‘who wrote the guidelines’, the answer – ‘it was a collaborative process’ – is so predictable as to render the question unnecessary.
The other ROFL moment in the ATTL review is the recommendation that “in a future project of this nature, the guidance should be clearer not just on the nature of relationship that is not allowed, but on the sort of relationship that would be allowed.” In other words, ‘we’ve got to publish all the excuses we might need for not obeying our own rules beforehand, to give us a robust get-out clause if we need it’. Of course, the whole issue of ‘obeying the rules’ has been very much in the news recently – despite paying virtually no tax in the UK, Starbucks, Google and Amazon reckon they do obey the rules… and in fact, legally, they do. But the public is rightly up in arms that they are taking advantage of legal loopholes that enable them to adhere to the letter of the law with a flagrant disregard for its spirit. Is this where ACE has been taking lessons?
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect any organisation conducting an internal review to ever come up with anything more than a set of platitudes that will absolve it from all blame. Even the investigation itself was flawed in this case. Interviews with those whose reputations were at stake formed the basis of the report, with apparently no attempt having been made to take statements from other interested parties who had a stake in the outcome – like the local authorities that didn’t apply for ATTL funding because, they thought, as would most reasonable people, they were ineligible; and the artists who wasted their time applying because they – wrongly as it turns out – thought it was an opportunity aimed at them. The Leveson report wouldn’t have been worth the paper it was written on if he’d only taken his evidence from the likes of Murdoch and Desmond, or indeed from the ‘Hacked Off’ campaigners: the ATTL report falls firmly into the same camp.
Liz Hill is Managing Editor of ArtsProfessional