Count me out, Rufus Norris

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COMMENT: Normally I’d welcome major theatres including bloggers in their press nights – but the move by the National Theatre smacks of a move towards a system of self-censorship.

Ladies and Gentlemen, chrisontheatre.wordpress.com is proud to announce its first ever boycott. Up to now, I’ve done the odd “soft boycott” – for example, last year I chose to ignore the programmes of Forest Fringe and Summerhall (Northern Stage excepted) because of their involvement in political censorship the year before – but this time I’m saying it loud and clear. If I am invited to the National Theatre on a press ticket to review any of their plays, I will refuse. Observant readers will note this isn’t a terribly meaningful gesture because I don’t live in London and therefore I’m boycotting something that almost certainly won’t happen anyway. But with bloggers and online publications already stepping forward to applaud the move (“Bravo! Far better than those self-entitled newspaper reviewers’ plus ones!”), I guess it’s up to me to be the party-pooper. Because if this move is not already setting alarm bells ringing in your head, it should be.

It shouldn’t have been this way. I reject the notion that the print media has a special superior status over online media for reviews. I don’t even think I’d miss the print reviews if they disappeared. The column inch limit constrains the depth you can go into, and in the case of the National Theatre, it’s never really made sense to use space in a national newspaper for something 80% of the country can’t view anyway. The only thing where the print media might have something over the online media is with the quality of the reviews, but as I’ve already said, I don’t give monkey’s what your historical or intellectual background it – all I care about is how useful your reviews are to me as a punter. A reviewer or a publication might earn our trust, but ultimately print reviewers are in competition with online reviewers for readers. May the best critic win.

I welcome the arrival of online media, both online publications with an editorial direction and fully independent theatre blogs of individuals. The wider the range of opinions out there, the better. But arrival of the theatre bloggers has created a new problem which wasn’t there before: online reviewers aren’t just in competition for readers. They are also in competition for press tickets, and engagement with theatres in general. And this situation is something big theatres can easily abuse to exert some control over reviews of their plays. Sounds paranoid? Let me explain.

I can’t speak for the intricacies of the London blogger scene, but what I can safely say about the north-east scene is that I am one of the most critical bloggers out there, if not the most critical. It might be that I don’t buy into the sacred cow mentality that seems to arise when a region is dominated by one or two major producing theatres, or it might be that I simply don’t share the tastes of my fellow Thespians round here (after all, I do far more coverage of festival fringes than most people), but there is one thing I’ve observed from this: I hardly ever get a press ticket. Now, it’s only fair to say at this point there are other factors in play: in particular, I do not actively go asking for press tickets, which some other bloggers do. But I also notice that my blog posts are picked up the least by Live and Northern Stage, compared to fringe theatre at that circulate them all the time.

To be fair, that’s not too different to what I do when I’m in their shoes. Any wise fringe performer knows that good reviews are easy to promote and bad reviews are easy to bury, and I don’t see why anyone would want to draw attention to online reviews showing only 72% enthusiasm when the local press is giving its 100%. This can be a bit of a dilemma for theatre bloggers, with readership depends on prominence, and prominence is so much in the hands of the big players. It seems that you have a choice of either popularity or integrity. Very few get both, certainly not when you’re starting off. But I don’t blame regional producing theatres like Live or Northern Stage for doing what they do – they are PR-dependent businesses who need the best publicity they can get.

What the National Theatre is doing, however, crosses the line by a long way. This is goes far beyond promoting good publicity and smacks of penalising reviewers for bad publicity. If this was about widening critical review from the traditional printed media, I would welcome it. It is not. It’s been tagged on to the end of a row over ceasing to issue “plus one” tickets to established paper reviewers. Sure, it’s the National’s choice who they give complimentary tickets to, but when it follows a string of poor reviews under Rufus Norris’s leadership it smacks of pettiness. The critics affected don’t believe it’s a coincidence, and quite frankly, neither do I. In fact, I’m going to take the cynicism up a notch and suggest that maybe the real motive is the hope that the paper critics will stop coming completely to make way for more amenable reviewers. Withdrawal of press tickets completely would do the job too, but by withdrawing the plus ones it’s easier to insinuate the critics are throwing all the toys out of their prams because they don’t get their perks any more. Most distressingly, if it really is their plan to portray paper critics as the greedy self-entitled bad guys, it seems to be working.

So, to any theatre bloggers thinking of taking up these press tickets – and yes, already bloggers are putting themselves forwards – you have two questions to ask yourself. Firstly: do you really believe this is about promoting bloggers? They are claiming – or at least, they are happy to go along with the claim – that it the scrapping of the plus ones that enables the National to open up press tickets to online media. Bullshit. The Olivier auditorium 1,160 seats, and if they wanted to find an extra few dozen seats for online media on the press night, they could, easily. There’s no way on earth it’s an either/or choice between plus ones or bloggers. Which brings me on to the second question: if they can stop issuing complimentary tickets to the paper media in response to poor reviews, what’s to prevent them doing the same to you?

This is a tactic that goes on with celebrity journalism all the time. No-one stops publications writing critical pieces about pop stars or film stars, but anyone who does this is deprived of lucrative interviews with aforementioned pop and film stars. So they shy away from it. You only have look at the coverage of shows like The X Factor (how many of them report on the pre-auditions again?) or the lack of scrutiny of self-serving political campaigns to see the extent of the problem. So far, this level of self-censorship hasn’t been a problem in theatres, but that might be about to change. When there are gazillions of bloggers competing for National Theatre press tickets, are you confident you’ll be invited back if you write a less than glowing review? There’s plenty of excuses they can use: your review wasn’t up to standard, it’s time to give someone else a turn, this play isn’t your speciality. And if the real reason if that you review wasn’t positive enough, you’ll never be able to prove that. Unless you are a high-profile online writer/publication whose audience the National can’t afford not to reach, they hold all the aces. The choice between popularity or integrity becomes even more entrenched.

When the National Theatre holds all the bargaining chips over the bloggers, there’s one thing and one thing only you can take as reassurance they won’t abuse their power, and that’s trust. At the very least, the National need to come up with a very good explanation very quickly for how they intend to use this power responsibly. Until then, Rufus Norris, you can count me out because I don’t trust what you’re doing in the slightest.

The National can do better than this. This is the theatre that gave us War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Produce more stuff like that and you’ll have the critics eating out of your hands, plus one or not.

UPDATE 08/09/16: And the National Theatre has backtracked. The put it down to a review of arrangements or some similar waffle, but I think we can safely guess the protests had something to do with it.

It’s unclear whether there will also be a reversal on inviting bloggers. I hope not – even though the original motive for inviting them were questionable, the more diverse the press coverage, the better. Anyway, I can now lift my boycott. Anyone from the Nat fancy bribing me with some ludicrously expensive freebies?

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