COMMENT: It won’t be easy to find a right balance when programming controversial acts in publicly-run venues. But neither unofficial blacklists nor political intervention are the way to do it.
Oh dear. This almost passed me by, but there’s been a pretty major controversy over at Middlesbrough. Roy Chubby Brown is coming to Middlesbrough Town Hall in spring next year. Given the, shall I say, “contentious” nature of Roy Chubby Brown’s material, that alone raises a few eyebrows. But the really controversial bit is not the decision itself, but how the decision was made. The management had originally refused the booking – it was the newly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough who overruled them, and the manager of the Town Hall resigned apparently in protest.
In the end, however, something like this was bound to happen. The issue over venues refusing to programme Roy Chubby Brown goes back years, with reasons for refusal rarely being more specific than “it’s offensive”. And with so many venues owned by their respective local authorities, it was only a matter of time before someone higher up took the view that people who are offended don’t have to watch it. I wasn’t expecting things to come to a head so close to home, but in hindsight, it’s not too much of a surprise it happened in Middlesbrough – and not just because this is his home town. I will come on to this reason later.
So here we go again. As this raises questions about censorship and this is an anti-censorship blog, it’s time for me to give my thoughts. I don’t respond to every story that’s a censorship issue, but the main reason for this one – apart from the fact it’s happened on my doorstep – is that this shines a spotlight on two practices that normally have no scrutiny: one is how arts venue managers choose to programme at publicly-owned facilities; the other is how and when people higher up intervene in the running of these venues. And on this one occasion where we get an insight into what happens behind closed doors, it’s worrying for a lot of reasons.
The other reason I’m choosing to talk about this incident is, quite simply, I can’t stand Roy Chubby Brown. It would be a lot easier for me to only cry foul when this sort of thing happens to people I like – and indeed, this is what a lot of people do. But once you tolerate it for one person, however abhorrent, you legitimise the same against everyone else. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you do not believe in free speech for people you hate, you do not believe in free speech. Even the worst tinpot tyrants support the right for their mates to say things they approve of. I expect better from the rest of us.
Just to be clear, though, I am not saying Roy Chubby Brown is being censored or having his right to free speech denied, and I’m definitely not accusing anyone of being a tinpot tyrant. I’m merely saying that this raises questions, and so far, neither the old venue management nor the mayor who overruled them have provided answers to my satisfaction. To get anywhere near a right answer, this is going to get complicated. So here we go:
One disclaimer before we get going: I am working on the assumption that what Roy Chubby Brown says in his act is legal. Repugnant, maybe, but so far no-one involved has suggested he’s breaking any laws. If a strong case emerges that what he’s saying would constitute incitement to violence, incitement to racial hatred or anything else against the law, you can ignore everything I say here. The duty of venues and politicians to respect the law (especially laws written for good reasons to protect public safety) takes precedence over debates on artistic freedom. That caveat established, let’s carry on.
What’s wrong with the original decision
Okay, here we go. This is where it gets complicated. The first question: where does curation stop and censorship begin?
My view is that simply refusing a controversial act/speaker a platform at your own venue is not censorship, but actively working to prevent someone having a platform anywhere probably is. If a Christian fundamentalist owns a small bookstore and refuses to stock Harry Potter for all the Satanism, that is not censorship – you are free to buy Harry Potter from another bookstore. And laugh at owner for being so dumb-ass. However, if a Christian Fundamentalist buys up all the bookstore chains in the country and bans Harry Potter from all of them, that would be censorship.
That’s an oversimplified example, and a very hypothetical one; I’m not expecting the Chief Executive of Waterstones to go all Jack Chick on us any time soon, and even if he did, there’s enough alternatives to the leading book chain. There a better argument that the actions of the social media giants amounts to censorship, as a handful a people have huge amount of power and seemingly no accountability – but the (valid) complaints of questionable behaviour come from across to political spectrum. However, we have already digressed too much; we are not discussing bookstores or Facebook, we are discussing Roy Chubby Brown and Middlesbrough Town Hall.
Where do performing arts venues fit into this? Let’s imagine Steven Crowder asked to perform a set at Alphabetti Theatre. Alphabetti Theatre would almost certainly tell him to fuck off, and they would be 100% within their rights to do so. They’re an independent largely self-supporting venue and they can do what they like (not to mention that you cannot reasonably expect any venue to take the business suicide option). Crowder and Co would probably say Alphabetti has a political agenda, but so what? If enough people don’t like a venue’s political leanings, they are free to set up their own venue and allow different artists to perform. (NPO-funded venues are a little more complicated – there are questions over whether they could get too powerful and act as cultural gatekeepers of grass-roots arts, something I’ve previously discussed here – but that doesn’t change much here. If you’re a big-name act and both Live Theatre and Northern Stage refuse to play ball, you’ve got alternatives in Newcastle who aren’t so picky.)
However, publicly-owned venues are a different matter. They are answerable to their local councils, who are in turn answerable to the electorate. The defence of “it’s our venue we can do what we like” isn’t good enough for Middlesbrough Town Hall – it’s doesn’t belong to the management, it belongs to the council, or alternatively, the people of Middlesbrough. You now have a responsibility to them. The other factor to consider is that the argument that you’re welcome to go to another venue doesn’t stand up so well here. In Middlesbrough and many other places, all the venues of any standing are owned and run by the local council, given them a virtual monopoly on performing arts. When that’s the case, the council is a de facto local censor, whether they like it or not.
So, how should a publicly-owned venue behave? I can think of two opposite viewpoints. One way of looking at this – and this is the view that Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston advocates – is that the venue is there for everybody, and if some people in town want to see an act that other people loathe, the rest of us have no business telling them what they can and can’t see. The other way of looking at this is that the venue is for everybody, and if a lot of people in the town reasonably have a problem – and, let’s face it, we’re not short of people in Middlesbrough who’d have issues with this one – it’s not an appropriate place for a controversial act to perform. Or maybe there’s a balance somewhere between the two. If any venue wishes to openly adopt a stance, I would be quite happy to debate it, and I hope other people would too.
But the problem is, Middlesbrough Town Hall did not openly adopt a stance we can debate. In fact they didn’t have any official stance at all. Instead, they had an “unwritten policy”. That was really asking for trouble. You can never please all the people all the time with programming policies, but at the very least you have to be able to explain it when challenged. And you cannot do that if you were pretending the policy doesn’t exist. The reason is weak too: not being allowed to play because he’s “offensive”.* You’ve got to be more specific than that. He’s been barred from a lot of venues other than Middlesbrough before; most recently Swansea Council said his show was “unlikely to reflect our values and commitments”. That reason is a little better, but not much. I learned the hard way that nice-sounding public sector values such as “equality and diversity” and “valuing people” can be interpreted to mean anything you want, including the exact opposite.
(* Another caveat: We only have Andy Preston’s word that there was an unwritten policy, and that the reason he was blocked was merely being offensive. Neither he nor the departing manager of Middlesbrough Town Hall are willing to comment on what they actually said to each other, so this is all I have to go on. I reserve the right to change my mind on this matter if I found out he’s been omitting details that change things.)
That is why this is a problem that goes way beyond one unsavoury comedian – it’s not him, it’s the fact that venues supposed to be providing a public service can blacklist anyone they like for any reason they like. I’ve seen artistic directors decry performances as offensive to women and/or minorities, and when aforementioned women and/or minorities come forward and say they didn’t have a problem with it, their views are dismissed out of hand. Or, for something even more frivolous, this was precisely how Manchester Art Gallery behaved with their spurious removal Hylas and the Nymphs. They backpedalled after a big public backlash, but the only reason there was a backlash was because the Gallery made a big thing out what they were doing. The real damage stands to be done where managers or programming directors aren’t open about it, refusing acts under the pretence of there being no space in the programme. Who decides what is offensive? Does someone responsible for programming have to be offended, or do they have to decide someone else would be offended? How are you supposed to defend yourself against accusations of offence when you don’t what they are?
I have to say, this has too many similarities to the days of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for comfort. In both cases, unaccountable officials have the veto over performing arts on whatever arbitrary moral grounds they want. The statements of principle from the Lord Chamberlain sounded good – what decent 19th-century chap wouldn’t object to the “preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace”? – but in practice it could mean any petty objection. If any venues don’t like this comparison – it’s up to them to say why it’s wrong. The onus is on you to show you are using your powers responsibly. Your powers may justifiably extend to blocking controversial comics. But it cannot possibly extend to making unwritten moral decisions without explanations, like the Lord Chamberlain’s Office did.
Now, there is one point I will concede in defence of doing things behind closed doors: it’s a lot easier. I doubt the real reason MTH didn’t want Chubby Brown was because “he’s offensive” – it was probably more to do with his relentless vitriol against minorities. But that’s a bold statement to make in public, possibly libellous if you can’t back it up, and I can understand why council officials wouldn’t want to get drawn into that argument. But when you evade the issue and instead resort to vague labels of “offensive”, the price is too high. It can be abused against people who’ve done nothing wrong, and anyone who warrants a ban scores martyr points. Have the courage to state your position and defend it – hiding behind unwritten policies and woolly reasons comes back to bite you in the end.
What’s wrong with the mayor’s intervention
So, you might think that after all my criticisms of the Town Hall’s stance, I would be siding with Mayor Andy Preston on this. After all, he’s been saying what I’ve been saying for years: if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. And had this row erupted two years ago, that’s probably what I would have done. However, I’ve wised up to this now. In my experience, people who defend the rights of controversial right-wing comedians in the name of free speech are just as likely to be hypocrites as those who defend the rights of controversial left-wing comedians. Both sides do the same thing when it’s someone they don’t like: they fall silent; or worse, make excuses for it; or worst of all, actively call for the censorship themselves.
The example I have in mind is the recent furore over Jo Brand’s battery acid joke. I’ve already given my thoughts; the short version is although I think this overstepped the line, it’s pretty obvious she was not trying to encourage anybody to actually do that. But I quickly noticed most of the people calling for her head were the same people claiming political correctness is censoring comedy. In fact, this is where I first noticed a new tactic employed by wannabe censors: of course they believe in free speech and of course they’re opposed to censorship, but the other side want censorship when their feelings are hurt so that justifies us doing the same to them.
So, is Andy Preston a hypocrite? It really depends whether he’d do the same if the boot was on the other foot, but unless an equally controversial left-wing performer tries to perform at a Middlesbrough venue, we’ll never know the answer. Nevertheless, there are some reasons to be sceptical. He got in a row a few months before his election over immigration, claimed by some to be a dog-whistle, and even if it wasn’t, it might, I repeat, might have been a tactic to show he’s not afraid to Say It As It Is (TM). (Link to story here – read it and make up your own mind.) He also appears to liberally use the word “snowflake”, and downplayed Chubby Brown’s controversy as “not my cup of tea”. It would be quite a stretch to claim that he’s a secret supporter of Roy Chubby Brown’s politics, but it’s possible that his real motive was one in the eye for the triggered snowflakes rather than anything to do with freedom of expression.
The real cause for concern, however, is the fact that it was over one specific act – an area where politicians shouldn’t really be getting involved. Some Chubby Brown fans might accuse the programmers at the Town Hall of having a political agenda, and maybe they do, but so does the Mayor – of course he has one, he’s a politician. (In fact, that’s another reason I have to be suspicious of him – he’s one of these people who uses the phrase “professional politicians” as a dirty word when he himself is one.) I’m not saying politicians should have no input at all in cultural institutions; the government, for example, shapes the priorities of the BBC every time its Royal Charter is up for renewal, and most people seem happy with that. But this was very different: it was direct intervention from one politician regarding the inclusion of one controversial act. There would be uproar if the Culture Secretary overruled an editorial decision for Live at the Apollo, and I don’t see why this is any better.
The other issue is that decision of this much importance has been taken by one person. I admit that this problem isn’t entirely down to the current mayor, it’s also down to the elected mayoral system in place in Middlesbrough. This isn’t the right time to discuss the merits of this form of local government, but one of the biggest criticisms is that elected mayors make too many decisions of their own accord and the councillors don’t have enough powers to hold mayors to account. Even so, Preston could have brought this matter to the council if he wanted to. The only point I’ll make in his defence is that not everybody appreciates how important a decision it is to balance up freedom of speech against public order, so I would forgive Andy Preston for thinking there were more pressing matters to being to the full council. But it most definitely should have gone to them. Anything that stands to such such a big precedent should be discussed in the open, not left to one person’s judgement with no oversight.
I’m not saying full council should have made a yes or no decision on Roy Chubby Brown himself – I doubt that decision would have been any less politiced than the one Preston made alone. My view is that it would have been best for the council to discuss the principles of who does and doesn’t get invited to the venues they’re in charge of. Do you block acts for being offensive, and if so, how bad does it have to be? That won’t be any easy thing to define, but I think we can all agree that anything would be an improvement on an unwritten rule concerning one particular comedian.
Very rarely, I think council intervention in individual programming decisions is justified. When Hylas and the Nymphs went back up at Manchester Art Gallery, it was only after the City Council hinted it was prepared to overrule them. On that occasion, the venue management went way too far. It was clear it had become a petty moral crusade that no-one outside their clique asked for or wanted, and when there’s overwhelming evidence of widespread public opposition there’s a strong case for the council to act on behalf of the people. But there’s no way you can say the same about Roy Chubby Brown. Most of the time, it’s fine for elected officials to ensure programming decisions are fair, but that’s as far as it should go. Art is not always political, but it often is, and there’s no way we should be letting the politicians routinely decide what art we can and can’t see.
So to wind this up:
We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown. But we need to talk about him properly. Offensive and outdated? So what? The Life of Brian offended people, Charlie Chaplin is outdated, but no-one suggests banning those from town halls. If he’s saying or doing stuff that warrants closing the doors on him, it has to be made clear what it is and why it’s a problem. Roy Chubby Brown may respond by saying you’re strawmanning him, or taking him out of context, or even with legal threats – so make sure you can back up the claims with facts.
But before we can talk about talk about him, we need to talk about the responsibilities of publicly-run venues. There is sadly enough evidence of poor practice to show that artistic and programming directors who take on roles of moral arbiter cannot be trusted with this, at least not without some proper accountability. I appreciate that venues often have to make up the rules for programming as they go along, but for something as subjective as objectionable material this isn’t good enough. The questions have to get back to basics. What is the venue for? Who is the venue for? In whose interests are they making these decisions? What is more important: that the venue is there for anyone who wants it, or that the venue has a programme everyone is happy with? There are no definitively right answers, but unwritten blacklists is clearly the wrong answer.
And we also need to talk to talk about the roles of elected officials in public-run venues. Where does oversight stop and politicisation start? Again, there’s no objectively right answer, but be prepared to stick to your guns. If you supported Swansea council’s decision to block Chubby Brown from their venue, you can’t say it’s none of the mayor’s business what Middlesbrough Town Hall does. Likewise, if you cheered when the Middlesbrough Mayor overturned a ban, you can’t expect to decry what happened in Swansea as interfering politicians. You don’t get to change your stance depending of what’s more convenient to you this week.
This needs debating out in the open, efforts must be made to find a consensus, and then decisions need to be made on what is and isn’t acceptable in venues that belong to all of us. Only then should we apply this to individual comics. If Roy Chubby Brown falls foul of the rules, fair enough. And if following the same rules mean we also deplatform a darling of the far-left, so be it. There can be no tolerance of “Okay when our side does it”.
The front line of this battle might be the right of an unfunny comedian to act to act like a bell-end on a stage of his choosing, but the implications are far wider. It is about who has the gets to make decisions, not just for him but for everyone. I don’t know what the solution is, but keeping people in the dark over what’s going on is definitely not it. At the moment, this wider issue is getting lost in a battle between Chubby Brown fans and Chubby Brown haters. The debacle at Middlesbrough has raised a lot of questions about programming, power and politics. We should not waste the opportunity to demand some answers.