What should be done about a Fair Fringe

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COMMENT: Bad employers on the Edinburgh Fringe must be brought to book – but it must be done out in the open if this is not to be abused.

This is a comment article I’ve mean meaning to do since August, ever since the news broke of allegations that some Edinburgh fringe venues offered unacceptably poor conditions for their workers. I wanted to get it done in good time for this year’s fringe – but it turns out things are moving faster than anyone imagined. Whilst I was thinking over some general principles the Edinburgh Fringe should work towards, Edinburgh University has gone ahead and booted C Venues – believed by many to be the worst offender – out of its main home on Chambers Street, with Gilded Balloon taking the building over.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the Edinburgh Fringe works, almost all the main venues are temporary and rent their space from a landlord who uses the estate for something else the rest of the year. The biggest landlord of all is Edinburgh University, and most of the major venues and all of the supervenues have at least part of their operations on university-owned property. So to be chucked out of your main building by the University is a very damaging blow, because there’s few options open to you as an alternative. Now, you can recover from losing your main building – most famously, Gilded Balloon survived after its main building on South Street burned down. But they had a lot of support and sympathy as they refocused on Teviot Row House. It’s harder to imagine C Venues getting this kind of good will.

For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I have little sympathy with C Venues. I am naturally protective of anyone on the receiving end of employers who think basic dignity and decency is optional (reason here) . At best, C Venues handled the situation incompetently; at worst, they got their just desserts. Even so, when anybody is the subject of a media pile-on I take extra care to give them a fair hearing. My view remains unchanged though: naming, shaming and retribution is not a long-term solution – we need an open debate on what’s fair and what’s achievable. And whilst it’s great to know that justice can be dispensed, the way this was done behind closed doors raises some serious questions that aren’t being asked.

What we know

With the world and his dog currently laying into C Venues, it’s important to remember that the charges against them are still only allegations. However, the case in their defence is weak – in particular, I would have expected a better defence from C Venues themselves if they were innocent of the charges.

The case against C Venues

So complaints over the treatment of fringe workers has been going on for a few years. Many venues argue that people who do flyering or box office or tech or bar are volunteers and do the work because they want to, but allegations mounted up over long hours and poor conditions that couldn’t reasonably be justified for a volunteer position. So a campaign group calling itself Fair Fringe, led by Unite Hospitality, did some research this year to see how bad things were. From this, some very serious allegations emerged, with two articles from Commonspace covering this quite comprehensively. There were claims of bad practices over all sorts of venues, but they quickly singled out C Venues as one of the worst.

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Warning! Long post ahead.

It’s at this point where it starts to become unclear what actually happened. The closest thing to a primary source is the report from Fair Fringe itself, but the problem with the report is that it mixes examples of bad behaviour with calls to action, when what I’d really want to see is the unfiltered data so I can make up my own mind what’s going on and who’s behaving the worst. But even with this caveat, it looked pretty bad for C Venues. Fair Fringe says there were more complaints about C venues than anywhere else – they did not say how much more complaints there were, nor did they say whether the complaints were mostly minor or mostly serious. (I’d rather have a venue with 100 complaints of long hours than, say, 5 complaints of predatory bosses.) But the most prominent complaints made about C Venues were very serious, including:

  • Making staff work longer hours for the same pay after they under-recruited;
  • Overcrowded accommodation, with several people sleeping on mattresses in shared single rooms;
  • Managers being disciplined for trying to prevent overwork and unreasonable overtime; and
  • The biggest red flag: ordering staff not to let anyone know what working conditions are like, even performers with C Venues.

Even if Fair Fringe was cherry-picking information and singling out C Venues unfairly, there’s really only one legitimate defence to allegations that serious, which is that they aren’t true.

I must say that in the comments sections of subsequent news coverage, I have read comments from people says they’re performers who defended the venue. But C Venues’ own defence has been weak. The earliest I can find any response to C Venues was from January, where they said (source, emphasis mine):

“We are deeply saddened to hear that a few individual members of our team have had bad experiences during their time at C Venues.

“However, the report contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations from a very small number of people, and does not reflect the experience of most of our team members.

“We ask all team members to tell us their experiences, good and bad. Only one of the team members named in the article from 2018 told us they were unhappy with their situation directly.

“By contrast, many of our volunteer team members tell us that they have gained experience, skills, and knowledge from their time with us at the Fringe, and many come back for more than one year.

“Our wish is that no one has a bad experience at C Venues. We aim to keep our volunteer programme in line with best practice and we are seeking to follow the Volunteer Scotland and Volunteer Edinburgh standards.

“We are taking steps to ensure that the operational issues experienced are not repeated, and to provide more channels for team members to communicate with us. If any member of the C Venues team, past or present, would like to speak to us about any such issues we would be happy to meet them.”

I’ve included the full statement to let them have their say, but there are two things about this that are suspicious. Firstly, their statement does not actually deny any of the claims, merely saying there are “unsubstantiated allegations”. The last time I heard some allegations against a venue, and the management skirted round confirming or denying allegations with these sorts of vagaries, they turned out to be all be true. That might have been acceptable as a holding statement immediately after the claims were first made, but after you’ve had four months to investigate this? Come on. And that brings me on to the second problem: how did it take so long to respond to this? (I suppose it’s possible they made a response that I didn’t find, but if I couldn’t find it in spite of a pretty thorough search, how is anyone else supposed to read it?)

The rest of the statement reads as platitudes depressingly familiar to me. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think “If you have a problem you should have told us” is a defence. The real reason people don’t come forwards is that they know no action will be taken, or they’ll face reprisals, or both. If C venues is innocent of these charges, they’ve done a poor job convincing me otherwise.

The consequences

This issue was debated and forgotten about, until the issue came to a head at the start of this year. Fair Fringe lobbied the Festival Fringe Society to chuck C Venues out of the Fringe – in practice, this would probably meant C Venues would still have run for the duration of the fringe, but they would have been excluded from listings on the FFS’s programme and website (like most Free Fringe plays do already). They refused – for reasons I’ll shortly come on to, I believe that was the right decision. However, events elsewhere were already overtaking this as Edinburgh University took matters into its own hands.

An important thing to note here is that this wasn’t simply a case of the media calling for C Venues’ head and Edinburgh University providing. According to Edinburgh University, they considered employment rights for all their tenants when renewing contracts, not just the one under fire the most. C Venues, so they claim, was the only one who warranted losing their building – all of the other venues sufficiently behaved themselves to be allowed to stay put.

In theory, this provides us with some reassurance that Edinburgh Uni didn’t simply kowtow to trial by social media; the fact they did their own audit should mean they independently concluded C Venues were indeed the worst based on their own research. But it’s not impossible that Edinburgh University prefers tidiness to justice, and the audit was set up with a conclusion decided in advance under the pretence of fairness. One detail that is questionable is that Edinburgh University claims employment standards are always considered when renewing contracts, but are we supposed to believe that C Venues’ behaviour slipped through the net every year before now? I think not. At the very least, the University must have suddenly tightened up their rules, but making up rules on the fly is one of the easier ways to steer things to steer the outcome to the popular one.

Whatever the motives, this is a big game-changer. For years, Edinburgh University has been a great friend to venues setting up at the fringe. We now know they can also be a dangerous enemy.

Why you should be concerned

Now, you might look at the unanswered questions over Edinburgh University’s role in this and think, so what? C Venues had it coming. And, quite frankly, they probably did. But this could have repercussions way beyond one venue. One likely effect is that venues are going to think twice before behaving the way C apparently did – that is a good thing. But other potential effects aren’t so good:

It could undermine the open-access nature of the fringe

One row that blew up as an aside was how Festival Fringe Society Chief Executive Shona McCarthy responded to the matter. At best, she handled it badly. I’m not going to go into detail on this as I’m more interested in finding a solution than pursuing recriminations over who said what. However, the refusal of the Festival Fringe Society to ban C Venues was the most significant part of that row.

For various reasons, I think that was the right decision. Whilst I can see where this argument was coming from, banning one venue in response to an external campaign is a very bad idea for several reasons, particularly if done in the way Fair Fringe advocated:

  • It is unworkable. The rule that anyone anywhere can register for the fringe is the most fundamental rule of the Edinburgh Fringe. There’s no way you could change the rule to “anyone anywhere except C Venues” and get that through the board and the members.
  • It would leave the Festival Fringe Society open to all sorts of legal action. Edinburgh University covered their backs by doing their own audit. Taking punitive action based on the claims of a third party who didn’t publish their evidence would never stand up in court.
  • It punishes the wrong people. Fair Fringe made the call for a ban in January. By that point, groups were already applying to venues. If you bar C Venues from registering with the fringe, you also bar all the groups with C Venues, many of whom are risking everything.
  • It is least effective over the most powerful venues. The Festival Fringe Society could just about turn fire on a second-tier venue, but can you imagine what would happen if you did that to one of the Big Four? They are already pretty close to calling themselves the “Edinburgh Festival”, and publish their own programme. It wouldn’t take much for them to break away and ignore the Festival Fringe society.
  • It sets the precedent that the Festival Fringe Society acts as a moral arbiter. As soon as you change from “open to all” to “open to all except people we disapprove of”, you have a very different festival.

It’s the last one that could really do some damage. People are constantly demanding the Edinburgh Fringe vets their programme in line with their own moral sensibilities. Usually the reason they give is different from the real reason they want a ban. Claims that a play is harmful is used to mask the real reason that you want to silence an artist who you disagree with. In 2014, claims that you’re objecting to a specific source of funding disguised what some people really objected to, which I’m increasingly believing was Jews. (And yes, I’ve heard enough from people like Ken Loach to believe that it’s Jews that the core BDS supporters have a problem with. Not Israel. Not Israeli citizens. Jews.)

So far, the Festival Fringe Society has resisted all of this with the blanket response that it’s not for them to tell you what you can and can’t see. If there’s anything in the world where I could be persuaded to make an exception, it’s treating your fringe staff like shit. But that’s exactly the problem: it’s an exception. As so as you make an exception for one person, other people want the same for their pet cause. And you can expect some of the demands to be dressed up as something nice to hide far more sinister motives.

At the moment, they have not budged from their position, but things might change in the future and open up the doors to who knows what. It might just be workable if they drew up rules that applied to all venues, made it clear that they will never draw up rules on participation or artistic content, and especially refrained from knee-jerk responses to headline-grabbers. But I’d much rather employment rights were enforced by someone whose responsibility this it, like the City Council.

Edinburgh University can kick out any venue for any reason it likes

But the discussion on what the Festival Fringe Society might have done is, for now, hypothetical. The more important issue is over who did take action: Edinburgh University. Whilst I have little sympathy for who was on the receiving end, this raises a lot of questions over who might be on the receiving end in the future.

Robert Peacock says:

“I have no privileged information on the subject but I suspect the uni’s decision was a commercial one given a crowd-pleasing spin. You touch on the Gilded Balloon deal which I think was the deciding factor there. Can’t see venues opening their books though, interesting though that would be!”

What you have to remember is that it’s the landlords of the Edinburgh Fringe who are the big winners every year. With demand for estate wildly outstripping supply, the owners of these properties can name their price, and with Edinburgh University owning the most fringe-suitable buildings, they get the biggest windfall. To be fair, it can be argued that this is a legitimate payback after all the years that Edinburgh University spent hosting and promoting and growing the Fringe – and out of the all organisations in Edinburgh, a higher education institution is the kind of place I’d want most to land this sort of windfall. But the fact remains that this is a huge income source for them and their decisions are bound to be shaped by what’s best for them financially.

There is one good thing about an organisation the size of Edinburgh University acting as an arbiter here: it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be swayed by a single-issue campaign. A small business hosting a small venue could conceivably capitulate after the owners are threatened with public vilification and online harassment – Edinburgh University, on their other hand, can easily sit it out until the hashtag hordes move on. So we can safely assume that Edinburgh University’s decision is genuinely their decision and not a decision they’re been arm-twisted into making.

But it is a fair decision? Maybe. It may well be that Fair Fringe’s report served as a wake-up call and they did their own investigations and acted accordingly. Or … the motives might have been different. Gilded Balloon need a new central venue after Teviot row gets closed for refurbishment, and Chambers Street would have been a good alternative. If they were prepared to pay Edinburgh Uni more than C Venues were, the row over treatment of workers might have given the Uni the excuse they needed to hand Chambers Streets over to the highest bidder. Can we prove they did that? No we can’t. But can they prove they didn’t? Not with the evidence they given us. The fact they run an internal investigation isn’t good enough – when you set the terms of reference, choose who does the investigation, and keep them answerable to you, it’s not too difficult to arrange them to give the answer you want. The only thing they do have to worry about is the investigation getting challenged in court – but there are ways of protecting investigations from legal challenges and still keep it one-sided.

And if they have this much power, why stop there? All universities have collaborations with major companies, some of which have dubious ethical records. Just how tolerant is Edinburgh University of criticism of its funders? Now, there’s no chance they’re going to threaten Pleasance with eviction because they’re running a play MacBastard Toxicorp who happen to be sponsoring a new research centre – I’m pretty sure they know about the Streisand effect. But can they lean on the programmers behind the scenes? Edinburgh University could have a huge amount of influence over the arts that we don’t know about.

This is always been an issue, but what’s just happened is a sharp reminder of just how much power Edinburgh University have. And like all power, it could be abused. If the University is serious about showing itself to be a supporter of the Fringe as it’s meant to work, the onus will have to be on them to convince us they’re using this power responsibly.

Fair Fringe now has a lot of power and no accountability

The most questionable display of power, however, has come from Fair Fringe itself. Until this month, Fair Fringe was just a pressure group. But now they’re a pressure group with the power to cause major venues to lose their key buildings. That’s a lot of power. And, at the moment, there does not appear to be anything to keep this power in check.

As you may have noticed, my good will towards Fair Fringe is waning quite quickly. The latest thing they’ve done that I think is a bit off is that they’re now chasing the Royal Edinburgh Society to do the same. That I think, overstep the line from public-spirited to vindictive. For Christ’s sake, Fair Fringe, you’ve already won this one. You blew the whistle on C Venues and they’ve paid a heavy price for their behaviour. Other venues will take this as a lesson to behave themselves lest the same happens to them. But the one thing that is completely absent from Fair Fringe’s tactics is the chance for past wrongdoers to change their ways. C Venues is surely going to have to reform very quickly if they don’t want to lose their staff to other venues – I don’t see the point of kicking them when they’re down.

But the wider issue here is that Fair Fringe appears to swiftly be taking on a role of judge, jury and executioner – a role that other people seem happy to grant them. I am not fully satisfied with their reasons for singling out C Venues. Sure, what they (apparently) did was bad, but is this really any worse than the other venues? That is no defence of C venues – they should not be let off the hook for making threats against staff for speaking out just because some other venues are doing the same – but it does raise the possibility that other venues are getting away with worse. Fair Fringe appear to have made up their mind long before their 2018 research that C Venues was the worst. How do we know confirmation bias didn’t come into play? How do we be sure that Fair Fringe avoiding naming and shaming venues they’re on friendly terms with? Without the data presented in a way anyone can analyse, we don’t know.

I might be prepared to overlook the lack of evidence if Fair Fringe had earned my trust, but their continued obsession with one venue long after they won and the venue lost makes me doubt their impartiality. And, so far, no-one appears to be scrutinising how they’re operating. I’m beginning to wonder if Shona McCarthy’s poor attitude to Fair Fringe is there for a reason. But the root problem here is that Fair Fringe have not demonstrated that they’re being fair. The irony has not escaped me.

What should be done now

However, after tall this, my views are unchanged. This is the approach I think we should take to come up with a solution that is both sustainable and fair. It’s not the final answer – there’s a lot of information we need and debates to be had before we get there – but this, I believe, is the route to the answer.

1) Clamp down on the worst offenders

It will take time to debate and implement a solution for an issue this complicated. This does not mean that venues should be free to behave how they like in the meantime. For some of the practices listed in Fair Fringe’s report, there’s no way that can be considered acceptable, regardless of what we later decide on reasonable pay and working hours. All the things I’d listed over C Venues’ behaviour I’d say warranted immediate action, and had Edinburgh University not taken action something would needed to have been done. Just the Tonic who (according to Fair Fringe) promised staff one day off per week and then gave one off for the whole festival also need some attention.

However, unlike Fair Fringe, I am more interested than putting a stop to these practices than pursue vendettas against past offenders. If a badly-behaving venue gets the message and changes their ways, move on. Also, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, if the price of given into demands is a campaign that senses weakness and redoubles their efforts against you, no-one is going to reform.

This, however, is just a short-term measure. The first stage of a long-term answer is:

2) Make the venues open their books

The main justification used by venues for volunteers is that it would be impossible to run their operations with paid staff only. That might be true. Certainly, for a small fringe such as Buxton, which relies on a mixture of venue staff, volunteers and artist collectives, there are people queuing up to put their spare time in, and it’s inconceivable that the fringe could run without. But then, no venue in Buxton is implicated in allegations of exploiting volunteers. They also have a shoestring budget compared to the vast money machine that is Edinburgh. I’ll take a Buxton venue’s word for it that there’s no more money to go round – I’m not prepared to do that for an Edinburgh venue, and neither should anyone else.

This is achievable if enough people keep up the pressure.  The major venues will have a very weak case if they’re to argue there’s no money to pay any more volunteers (honest) but you can’t look at the figures that would prove this. I can understand why an individual venue would be reluctant to do this unilaterally – you probably don’t want to expose your dirty laundry to public gaze without your competitors doing the same – but if everyone does it, no-one loses out by going first.

The Festival Fringe Society would be well placed to oversee this – they can negotiate with venues a fair balance between due public scrutiny and commercial sensitivity. If most venues open their books but one or two hold out, that’ll be a sign they’ve got something to hide. But that will give us enough information as to what’s a normal cash flow, and it will be enough to proceed to the next stage.

3) Debate and agree what’s fair

From this point on, my proposed way forwards gets vaguer, as this will depend on what we actually see in the books, not to mention what the reaction is.

The first and obvious thing to work out is whether this argument on whether there’s no money actually holds out. That’s the easy bit. The harder bit is arguing where the money should be diverted from. Excessive pay of management? Maybe, if it’s shown to be excessive, but what if that’s not an option? Could you divert money from anywhere else, or would there be consequences? Should the costs be passed on to ticket prices or performers? Is it a choice between an affordable fringe for performers or a fair fringe for workers? So many questions hinging on figures we don’t yet have.

We also need a debate on the ethics of volunteering. From my point of view, I would loved to have volunteered for a fringe venue if I had a spare four weeks in August simply for the crack – but there again, that was under the impression I’d be asked to do a sane amount of work, rather than an insane amount. There is of course the experience you can gain to then apply for paid jobs – but that is the same justification used for unpaid internships, with very dubious ethical credentials. Should we set an upper limit on the amount of work you can expect of a volunteer? Should we have different rules for big venues and small venues? It would seem odd in a amateur theatre in Edinburgh that runs on volunteers suddenly has to pay everyone just because one of their acts registered with the fringe.

One thing that may be a hot topic for debate at this stage is the income of the landlords. Especially Edinburgh University. They are quite close to monopoly status, with the power to charge what they like because acts and venues have nowhere else to go. Now, there is the argument that cutting costs to performers at the expense of landlords would be ineffective because fewer costs would mean more groups going to Edinburgh, meaning less income to go round and you’re back to square one. But there may be a stronger case for insisting that landlords pay their fair share towards venue staff.

Or it could come down to a straight choice of performers or venues staff, where paying the latter is just passed on to the costs of the former. That will be a painful choice if that’s really the only two options.

And finally …

4) Make a decision, then do it

This is the vaguest step of all, because we’re speculating on both the finances of Edinburgh Fringe venues, and the public reaction once the books are opened. But hopefully, a consensus will emerge on what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

This leads us to the last question: how shall this be implemented? Will the venues self regulate? This might seem unlikely after all the dubious behaviour that’s been found out so far, but who knows, perhaps public scrutiny will be enough to persuade them to behave. Or does somebody need to enforce this? If so, who? Edinburgh University is a kind-of de facto solution at the moment, but as landlords it can be argue they are part of the problem. It’s been suggested Edinburgh City Council could enforce employment rules, but they have a reputation of getting in the way of the fringe. Then there’s the option of the Festival Fringe Society itself – and they can be pushed into action by its members is the leadership is slow to act – but, again, this will be useless if the Big Four break away to ignore this.

The only thing that is certain is that is will take a long time to decide anything. The sooner we can get the ball rolling on matters like pressing for open books, the sooner we can get to answers.

And one other option …

I will make one final suggestion before I go. Throughout the article, I’ve written this on the assumption that the venues will not reform on the matter of treatment of workers unless they made to. It would be an awful lot easier if my assumption turned out to be wrong. It’s not easy to show that venues are engaging in wrongdoing – but it would be a lot easier for venues to show that they’re not.

A bit more openness and honesty from the venues would be a long way. If you can’t pay your volunteers anything more than expenses, a frank explanation of why it’s not affordable will go down a lot better than dragging out the details the hard way. If your staff’s terms and conditions are available for all to inspect, we’ll be less likely to think you’re hiding something. Most of all, you can make it clear you welcome whistleblowers, not threaten them. If you have nothing to hide, you should need to warn your volunteers off going to the press.

The issue of poor treatment of volunteers is something that venues allowed to happen on their watch. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be the ones who put things right. If they proactively demonstrate they’re turning over a new leaf and win our confidence back, that will be the best answer for everything.

One thought on “What should be done about a Fair Fringe

  1. Robert James Peacock March 20, 2019 / 1:34 pm

    Good piece, Chris, and obviously I agree. I have no privileged information on the subject but I suspect the uni’s decision was a commercial one given a crowd-pleasing spin. You touch on the Gilded Balloon deal which I think was the deciding factor there. Can’t see venues opening their books though, interesting though that would be!

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