There, I’ve said it: think twice before being reviewed by The Scotsman

COMMENT: The Scotsman is a highly-regarded arbiter of high-profile fringe theatre, but the service they offer groups on their first fringe venture is a different matter.

Edinburgh Fringe is about to begin. And where there’s an Edinburgh Fringe, there’s Edinburgh Fringe shenanigans. This year, the first shenanigan to hit the headlines is The Mumble, who charge people for reviews. I am in agreement with, well basically everyone, that you should have nothing to do with them, especially if you are starting off on the fringe circuit. The good news is that few people appear to have signed up to their schemes – most people, it seems, know better to put their trust in someone with such a dodgy reputation.

However, I am coming to the view that there is another publication you should be wary about, and unlike The Mumble, they are very highly regarded; and plenty of performers, beginners and veterans alike, invite their reviewers along. And that publication is The Scotsman.

It’s not got to the point where I’m telling everyone to have nothing to do with them. Their Fringe First awards are something to take seriously, and if you’re already a big name and you’re in with a shot of awards of that prestige, The Scotsman is as good an option as any. But if, like the majority of performers who read this blog, you are trying to make a name for yourself, it’s a different story. Any review request is a gamble, heavily swayed by a reviewer’s personal tastes that you have no control over. But this particular gamble is one where the odds are not in your favour. There is a high chance a Scotsman review will be useless, or worse than useless.

Here’s why I question whether it’s worth bringing The Scotsman along.

What’s wrong with The Scotsman’s reviewing

In this article, I’m trying to steer clear of any moralising – I’m not asking anyone to punish The Scotsman or any other publication simply to settle scores on my behalf. If you think it’s in your interest to be reviewed by them, go ahead. But I have four reasons in particular why I do not believe it’s in your interests if you’re not an established fringe name. Even if the alternative is no review at all.

1) The Scotsman is hard to please

One thing that is an open secret in Edinburgh is that different publications have different standards for star ratings. It’s complicated and ever-changing, but the simplest rule is that the paper press, particularly the broadsheets, tend to have higher standards for the same rating. Something that gets four stars in The Scotsman or Times or Guardian might get five if the same reviewer worked for an online publication.

If you are starting off, however, the difference you need to worry about the most is the borderline between three and two. In general, the online publications are quite patient. If you did something unoriginal but well-made, or something innovative with flaws, most online reviewers will give three stars with some constructive advice on how to do better. Broadsheet reviewers will have a much itchier two-star finger. But even if a Scotsman two-star would have got three stars elsewhere, that will inflict the same damage of any two-star rating. Even if audiences don’t see the review, it is a big blow to your morale, may persuade future reviewers not to bother, and could make your venue think you’re not a winning horse worth backing. It is difficult to recover from your first review being two stars.

So why am I directing this criticism at just The Scotsman and not any of the other broadsheets? The reason is the number of shows reviewed by them. In order to get someone from The Times or The Guardian to come along, you need to already highly regarded, and bad reviews from them are rare disappointments from prestigious names where they expected better. The Scotsman, however, reviews shows from all sorts of levels. Normally, I would applaud this, because one of the biggest (and justified) complaints about review publications is that they only review the shows everyone’s heard off and don’t give the newcomers a chance. But when you’re dishing out one- and two-star reviews to the newbies with such regularity, it really has to be questioned whether you’re doing them a favour.

Worse, it is often the case that The Scotsman writes the only review a play gets, which would be fine if three stars was the usual offering, but with so many twos being awarded that leaves a lot of artists with a single two-star against their name. I’ll leave it to others to decide if that’s fair or ethical. But if this is your first fringe, there is a high chance this will be the outcome of your Scotsman review request. Is this gamble really worth it?

2) Scotsman reviews are usually not helpful

Even this number of two-star reviews might be excusable if the performers got something useful out of it. It is uncommon that you’ll see a hit-piece review on the fringe circuit – on both sides of the performer/journalism divide it’s understood how much of a personal sacrifice it is to the performers, and how cruel it is to laugh at failure in these circumstances. So when reviewers must write a bad review, they are expected to say what they didn’t like. In a three-star review they are expected to give some indication of what could have made it a four. Some publications even encourage writers of four-star reviews to think what might get the fifth star.

Unfortunately, The Scotsman is wedded to the old format where word limit is decided how much space it physically takes up on a sheet of paper. Never mind the fact that almost everybody reads their reviews online nowadays. I am told that reviewers are encouraged to write longer articles for reviews with better star ratings, but whether or not that’s true, it’s far harder to write a constructive review when the word limit is as short as it is.

But it’s worse than that. Even with such low word limits, terse feedback still has room to list the things you did wrong as a pointer for what needs putting right. Negative Scotsman reviews, on the other hand, typically spend three quarters of the review giving a plot summary, and in the final sentence or two dismiss your efforts as “pedestrian” or “dreary” or “mediocre” or any word designed to drive your audience away without giving clue what it was the they didn’t actually like. The Scotsman might argue they’re doing a service to the punters and that’s what they want to know, and maybe they’re right. But they aren’t doing a service for you.

3) The behaviour of some Scotsman reviewers is questionable

Now, it’s only fair for me to declare at this point I have a bit of history with The Scotsman here. Two year ago there is a fair amount of uproar over one particular Scotsman reviewer. I reported on the allegations factually, but when the reviewer concerned started getting abusive to the people who originally raised this, I said on Twitter this didn’t make him look good. He responded by blocking me. I promise I’m not bringing this up out of any personal vendetta, but had he been more polite I might have been kinder and let this drop sooner.

The feedback-free dismissals that constitute so many Scotsman reviews isn’t their worst behaviour. Two years ago it was noticed one particular reviewer was using up his word count with catty put-downs. More controversially, he only did this to female comedians. I analysed this at the time and couldn’t prove it was motivated because the comedians were female, but it was still unacceptable dedicate so much of his reviews to petty insults. (Paul Whitelaw has since ceased to review the Edinburgh Fringe claiming the Fringe is such an unpleasant environment – make of that what you will.)

If it was just him, I might have accepted an excuse of one bad apple – The Scotsman certainly isn’t the only publication to have poorly-behaved reviewers. But that excuse cannot hold for their head comedy reviewer, Kate Copstick. She’s had various criticisms over the years, that may or may not be warranted, but last year she way overstepped the line by writing a hit-piece about four comedians who refused to give press tickets out for a preview performance. In a festival where virtually everybody agrees 1) performers have the right to grant or refuse press ticket requests as the choose, and 2) it’s perfectly normal to not have reviews in for preview performances, that was a massive abuse of her position.

It is fair to acknowledge one reason The Scotsman could be getting so much stick is that they’re the best-known publication and consequently come under the most scrutiny. But when it’s your own head critic behaving this year, I really don’t see how you can excuse this with “Ah, but maybe the head reviewers of our rivals are worse.” And if this behaviour is normalised at the top, who knows what else is being tolerated. You might be the next person to get a hit piece based on an arbitrary dislike.

4) The Scotsman stonewalls criticisms

There was one response The Scotsman made to the Paul Whitelaw saga, which was to tell its reviewers not to get into social media spats with people who criticise them. That was fair enough for two reasons: firstly, it does no-one any good for one of your reviewers to make a complete tit of himself online; and secondly, sometimes reviewers end up on the receiving end of abuse (and by that I don’t mean snarky Fringepig articles but threats and harassment). For that, and other reasons, it is a very good idea that all grievances should be taken up with the editors and not the reviewers.

However, that principle only holds if the editors actually listen to criticism. I don’t know if The Scotsman has a complaints procedure for reviews, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. However, it’s quite common for the people in charge of fringe review sites to comment publicly about the overall direction of their sites, whether answering questions over review policies or doing responses to specific criticism. Now, it should not be assumed that failure to engage with every single criticism is an admission of guilt – review editors are, after all, busy people who can’t keep track of all of them let alone respond to them. But the criticisms over the last two years were quite widespread and certainly not something you can brush off as unimportant and not worth answering.

The most cynical interpretation is that the reason The Scotsman avoids responding to criticisms is because it considers itself the gold standard of fringe arbitration and therefore exempt from the accountability expected of lesser publications. It might not be that – but if they fail to counter this perception by not responding to anything, that’s on them. Until then, the fact that The Scotman’s preferred reaction to serious criticism is stonewalling doesn’t bode well.

Why you don’t need The Scotsman

Those are the reasons I’d urge you to steer clear of The Scotsman if you’re new to the fringe game. However, the fact remains that The Scotsman still has a lot of prestige that might tempt you to take your chances.

If you’re thinking of taking this risk, here’s why you could be banking on poor returns:

1) Your chance of getting a Fringe First is remote

The one thing The Scotsman offers which definitely carries some weight is a Fringe First. If The Scotsman reviews you, and likes you, you may get a Fringe First award on top of the review. If you want to know all of the rules, you can check them here.

Richard Stamp said:

“All media organisations, including ours, have some issues that they need to deal with. The Scotsman’s are very visible because The Scotsman is a very visible publisher. I think that a few years ago there was an aura around The Scotsman, that people believed they were a cut above the fray; and over the last few years that’s fallen away, and now we see they are people like everybody else, and they do get involved in these controversies like everybody else.”

Read more in the interview with Richard Stamp

However, Fringe Firsts share a criticism in common with most awards: the winners are almost always established companies with lots of backing. Whether that’s fair is open to debate: one argument is that this is against the spirit of an open-access festival, the counter-argument is that in an open-access festival, anyone should be able to do what they like. But the bottom line is that if you’re a fringe newcomer inviting the Scotsman along, the getting you a Fringe First is round about zero. The chance of a Fringe First without inviting The Scotsman along is also zero, but at least you don’t have to gamble on the single-paragraph one-star.

Also, there’s the conditions The Scotsman sets for Fringe First eligibility. In fact, this is yet another bone I have to pick. You have to “premiere” at the Edinburgh Fringe (hence the name, I presume) but you’re allowed up to six “previews”, which can mean doing Brighton Fringe first. However, you’re not allowed any reviews, which means you have to decline all review requests if you’re doing Brighton. That, I think, is insane – in the massively competitive environment that is Edinburgh, you need all the good publicity you can get. The fact that The Scotsman encourages people to do something so detrimental for an award that most of them have no chance of winning really does not impress me.

2) A good Scotsman review isn’t that big a deal any more

I don’t know whether The Scotsman truly believes it’s the most important reviewer on the fringe – but if they do, it’s a view few people share, at least, not where it counts. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still one of the key players in Edinburgh Fringe reviews, and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future, but it’s no longer the ultimate arbiter. If you get a good Scotsman review, you can expect this to count in your favour as far as ticket sales are concerned – there are plenty of prospective punters who rely on the Scotsman’s reputation. But in terms of impressing programmers or funders or anyone who knows how the fringe works – The Scotsman has squandered too much good will to be the gold standard any more.

One thing that doesn’t help is The Scotman’s tendency to come up with wildly different verdicts to everyone else. I admit I’ve not done any scientific analysis on this, but I could swear I’ve often seen plays with a raft of good reviews from everyone but The Scotsman, with their verdict being, as usual, the plot summary plus “I don’t like it”. That doesn’t mean The Scotsman is getting it wrong – you should never judge right and wrong reviews on a majority vote – but when the shows loved by other reviewers tend to go on to big success, one has to wonder what special insight The Scotsman offers. And then there’s the fringe hits that don’t get reviewed by The Scotsman at all. The days when The Scotsman could make or break you are long gone.

If you ignore my advice and get reviewed from the Scotsman and it’s good, then by all means shout it from the rooftops. Just don’t expect it to trump the good reviews other people show from other publications.

3) Reviews are overrated anyway

The other reason you might be tempted to accept a review request from The Scotsman is the worry that this might be the only chance you have for a review. And that might well be the case. A large proportion of fringe shows go the entire three weeks and leave with no reviews, good or bad. You didn’t even get the chance to show what you can do. And that sucks.

The first thing I would say to anyone worried about this is to ask what you are trying to achieve and how critical is getting a review is to your plans. If you want to see if you can do a play under fringe conditions, or just want a good time, you don’t need a review to achieve that, and you can consider any reviews you to get as a nice-to-have-but-not-essential bonus. If, however, you are intending to showcase yourself to the world, attracting reviewers becomes more important. If you’re in a situation where you desperately need reviews but you’re worried you won’t get any, I would seriously question whether you’re ready for Edinburgh. You might want to consider doing a smaller fringe first, to build your reputation or hone your craft or both. Of course, if you’ve already signed up for Edinburgh and you’re already fretting about the press releases, it’s a bit late to ask if whether Edinburgh was the right choice.

Whatever your motives, be aware that reviews – even glowing reviews – won’t necessarily give you the breakthrough you hope to get. Whilst good reviews in advance of Edinburgh can put you in a good stead (especially from Brighton), the opposite isn’t always true. Okay, this is something I learned the hard way so I’m taking it a little personally, but theatre people back home can have very specific ideas about who’s worth supporting and championing; the fact you have done something off your own back and proven your worth might mean nothing to them. Local gatekeeping is a debate for elsewhere, but the harsh reality is that if you avoid the injustice of getting no reviews, you may instead get the injustice of good reviews that no-one takes any notice of.

Don’t get me wrong – you will need the face the reviewers eventually. But don’t pursue reviews at any cost, because the value may be less than you think. If you don’t trust the only person offering to do a review, no review may be the less bad option.

What The Scotsman could do to redeem itself

So, does this mean I want The Scotsman out of the Edinburgh Fringe? No. I want The Scotsman to clean up its act and go back to being one of the most respected arbiters on the Fringe. And it’s not too late to save their reputation. In order to do this, there are two things The Scotsman needs to do.

1) Decide what sort of review publication it wants to be

In a way, the root cause of most of The Scotsman’s problems is that it’s not kept up with the changes to the fringe. Fifteen years ago, when paper was the main medium of fringe reviews and things were less competitive, their reviewing model might have made sense. Now, however, they have to face up to some difficult decisions.

Top of the list: who is The Scotsman writing reviews for? Is it for punters, with The Scotsman’s expert team of reviewers telling them where to best spend their time and money? Or is it for performers, to give everyone a fair chance to be discovered and get them back on track if they’re getting it wrong? At the moment, I’d say it’s a lot more of the first than the second, which is fine. But they’re doing nobody any favours by trying to be both, at least not the way they’re operating at the moment. If there’s a reason why they don’t give constructive criticism to plays they don’t like, I’ll respect it, but at least be open about it. Fringe novices can then make an informed decision on whether it’s worth their while.

The other difficult decision – and this one I have more sympathy with – is what to do about paid reviewers. Review length may no longer be limited by paper space, but it may still be limited by the time you paid the reviewer for. Paid reviewers is a debate for another day, but the summary of the debate is that everyone agrees it’s good to pay reviewers but nobody can agree who pays for it. Whatever the answer, The Scotsman has a problem that they’re up against publications where reviewers eagerly write for nothing more than a press ticket. As such, I wonder whether this model is sustainable, at least with the current practice of reviewing far and wide. Can a paid short-form review really compete with longer reviews written for free?

I personally think The Scotsman should forget about trying to review as many acts as possible and instead do extensive and informed coverage of the bigger names. Of course giving fringe newcomers a chance is important, but as it stands volunteer-driven fringe media is doing this better. We can revisit this if and when we find a better way of paying reviewers for their time, but for now I’d urge the Scotsman to stick to doing what it does best. But if they truly want to do everything, at least be open on what you’re trying to do.

2) Answer criticisms properly

Many of the Scotsman’s difficulties can be attributed to adjusting to a changing Fringe, but not all of them. That does not explain Paul Whitelaw’s behaviour in 2017, or Kate Copstick’s behaviour in 2018. Quite honestly, I think the best thing Kate Copstick could have done in the aftermath of that notorious column was to apologise and move on. (She did give a comment to The Observer when questioned, but there was no pro-active response from The Scotsman.) I’m not sure how to handle Paul Whitelaw’s case – I have reasons to believe the background to this is more complicated that what’s on the record – but anything could have been better than the editorial board standing back whilst he sent angry tweets.

If The Scotsman doesn’t think it has anything to apologise for, then they should defend their position. Even a load of non-committal waffle would be an improvement. But saying next to nothing is what allows distrust of The Scotsman’s reviewing team to fester.

I’m sorry I’ve reached the point where I’m warning people off reviews from The Scotsman. I’d love to say next year that they’ve regained the trust of myself and other critics of their reviewing practices. But how they mend their reputation is entirely in their hands. The Scotsman did a lot to earn its place as the most respected reviewer of the fringe. If they’re not careful, complacency could cost them everything.

UPDATE 23/08: It looks like the feeling is mutual. The Scotsman – or at least someone acting as a Scotsman cheerleader – has written an article in the Edinburgh Evening News about why it’s us theatre bloggers (or pop-up reviewers as he likes to call them) who are spoiling the art of reviewing.

I have of course responded:

Sorry Scotsman, but “pop-up” reviewers are legitimate competition

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