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

COMMENT: There are valid reasons to criticise independent reviewers – but writing “entertaining” reviews at the expense of saying anything helpful is worse than anything so-called pop-up reviewers are accused of doing.

I apologise for burdening you with yet another anti-Scotsman article. I was planning to let this go after my original article on why you should think twice before letting The Scotsman review you, but then came Kate Copstick’s bizarre passive-aggressive column for Broadway Baby, seemingly unable to let go of her outburst the year before over comedians exercising their right not to give out press tickets for previews. So I wrote about that hoping it would be the last time. But now I’ve come across this article in the Edinburgh Evening News: ‘It’s these pop-up reviewers who haunt festivals such as Edinburgh Fringe that have done much to devalue the review as an art form’. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, this is bad. It’s not entirely clear what is meant by “pop-up” reviewers – most of the time it seems to be independent bloggers such as myself, but it’s vague and possibly extends to pop-up review sites. The only people cited as valid reviewers are – yes, that’s right – the reviewers at The Scotsman, co-incidentally the sister publication of the Edinburgh Evening News.

Even though this piece is a blanket attack on people like me, I’m going to refrain from making personal attacks back. Unlike Kate Copstick and Paul Whitelaw, who both squandered all my respect a long time ago, Liam Rudden, by all accounts, is highly thought of as both a theatre maker and an arts journalist. And yet the way this article is written, it reads like a hit piece sanctioned by the fringe editors of The Scotsman with Liam Rudden acting as a proxy. So let’s respond.

Some of the points made at the beginning are reasonable. Calling yourself a “legend” in your own press release is probably inadvisable. There is a shortage of decent reviewers at the Edinburgh Fringe, and, yes, marking down a fringe production simply for having no wings is probably a sign of crappy reviewing. One poor review, however, is not evidence that all independent reviewers (or “pop-up” reviewers as Rudden likes to call them) are bad. Most fringe reviewing publications have been called out for bad reviews or bad reviewers at one point or another, and The Scotsman is no exception.

I do agree that it is bad practice for theatre bloggers to hand out five stars willy-nilly, but is that really the only reason theatre bloggers get invited to reviews? I’ve never given out more than two Ike Awards (my equivalent to five stars) in a single fringe, and a lot of my reviews are only lukewarm, yet people keep asking me to review them. Maybe they value the chance to get some constructive feedback from an independent source – something The Scotsman seems to consider unimportant. Inexperience? This varies from reviewer to reviewer, but I see about one hundred plays per year and write reviews of most of them. I admit I have no qualifications in English past GCSE level, and anyone who thinks that matters is welcome to read someone else’s reviews. However, Liam Rudden also places no value in qualifications, albeit for a very different reason. This is where it gets bad:

“You may be a fantastic academic scribe and have a raft of degrees but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to colour and craft a good entertaining read, which every review should be.”

Sorry, what? So this is what’s meant by the review as an art form. I’d always thought there are two benefits to a review: to give people thinking of seeing the play an opinion (hopefully a reliable one) on whether it’s worth going; and to give the performers some helpful words on what works and what doesn’t. It can be a good and entertaining read as well – indeed, a good and entertaining read makes it easier for the reader to take in what the review says – but that is a means to an end and not an end in itself. As soon as the primary aim is for the readers to marvel at your skills as a wordsmith, you’re doing a service to no-one but yourself.

And that’s not even the worst bit. Worst of all is that this is the justification for the notorious Scotsman single-paragraph assassination. Why is it okay for their one-star reviews to be nothing more than a plot summary in a few sentences then a dismissal in a single sentence? Why are unhelpful put-downs such as “pedestrian” an acceptable replacement for the constructive feedback given by other publications? Because it’s a good entertaining read. Everyone loves reading a one star review as long as it’s not about them – that’s why the old Festival Page of Shame was so popular. That’s not me paraphrasing – that last sentence is Liam Rudden’s, word for word. So it’s official: when Scotsman reviewers write one star reviews, it’s so that their readers can laugh at you. Remember, most of these shows aren’t greedy producers producing bland entertainment to rake it in at the box office – the Edinburgh Fringe is mostly small-scale performers sacrificing a lot for something they believe in, however misguided. If The Scotsman treats reviews of plays they don’t like as entertainment at your expense, that’s surely the prime reason not to touch them with a bargepole.

What really riles me about this is that The Scotsman has come under a lot of fire for its own faults over the last couple of years, and shows no intention of addressing them. I’m not the only person to question their one-star review practice, but the questions over the behaviour of Kate Copstick last year and Paul Whitelaw the year before are far more serious. This year, the only response from The Scotsman has been to double down with attacks on their critics and competitors. A mitigating factor? Theatre reviewing jobs are being cut, and increased competition from the people working for free may be hastening the decline. I sympathise, but that cannot excuse the attitude that “professional” reviewers have a special status just because someone’s paying them. The onus is on them to offer something that other reviewers don’t. I suggest trust and respect are a good combo, but trust and respect have to be earned. You won’t earn it by badmouthing other reviewers, and you certainly not reviewers trying harder to earn respect and trust than you are.

Now, it is only fair to consider the possibility that Liam Rudden is expressing his own opinion, this is not a proxy for The Scotsman’s position, and The Scotsman’s justification for its entertaining one-star reviews is quite different. If so, I’d be quite happy for The Scotsman to enlighten us on what their editorial position actually is. But this attitude would be consistent with the “Do you know who I am?” behaviour that’s been coming from The Scotsman lately. Not all Scotsman reviewers behave this way, but those who do seem to have impunity.

When I started off this fringe, I’d hoped The Scotsman might start to rebuild its reputation. In any case, I’d assumed – having lost my respect over the last two years – they couldn’t do anything to make me think worse of them. But against all odds, they’ve done it. I held a hope a month ago that they might get their house in order – that hope is now swiftly sliding out of view.

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