On Tyneside Cinema (part 1)

This article is one I hoped I would never have to write. It was almost three years ago that the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein broke, but that event – and even subsequent news in closer places such as the Old Vic – felt like something happening far away. Now we face the real possibility of an abuse scandal on our doorstep. The north-east arts community is up in arms about this, and things could get uglier still. As a result, it was very tempting for me to steer clear of this subject. But I have often enough criticised arts media doing too much cheerleading for major cultural venues and not enough asking on questions, so I cannot in all conscience stay silent now. The reason this has taken so long to write is because I have had to keep fact-checking a constantly-updating story and run this past people whose advice I trust – not to mention the knowledge of how sensitive this subject is – but I am now ready to speak.

If you are based in the north-east and involved in the arts, you should know what’s happened by now. For everyone else: this all began in late June when an allegation was posted on Twitter from a woman who said she’d been raped by a member of staff at the venue – and this has escalated swiftly. Now large numbers of Tyneside Cinema staff and staff have come forward with other complaints, and it is this, combined with an arguably poor response from the management, that has prompted the BFI to take action. I am reserving final judgement on the Tyneside Cinema until I see what comes out of the various investigations, but as it stands, it doesn’t look good.

There are potentially a lot of unpleasant lessons that will need learning when events run their course, and they won’t necessarily stop at one venue. However, until we know what comes of out the investigation – not to mention see what happens in the subsequent fallout – I have to keep this factual. So let’s begin by getting the facts in order.

What we know so far

Normally, I give as much information as possible on controversial issue so that people can judge for themselves. On this occasion, however, I’ve decided to stick to the specific topic of the behaviour of Tyneside Cinema’s management. I do not believe it would benefit anybody to give a running commentary of individual cases any more than is needed. If you want to see a comprehensive list of cases, you can check out this list from pressure group Save Tyneside Cinema. In the meantime, please be assured I am not ignoring anybody’s experience – I am focusing on the people with responsibility. Short version, though: the more I examine this list, the worse it gets.

The events surrounding Tyneside Cinema go back years, but things only started getting public attention on the 26th June. A member of staff went public on Twitter saying she’d been raped by another member of staff – but the bulk of the complaint was directed at Tyneside Cinema and the way she felt management didn’t take the case seriously. On that matter, there were three things that stood out: firstly, she says the meeting to discuss this was held in the bar where members of the public were in earshot; secondly, she was not contacted again after this meeting; and thirdly they referred the case to the Police without her consent. None of these look good for an employer.

But this, it turned out, was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next 24 hours, there were two kinds of responses: one was from people offering sympathy and support; the other was from people coming forwards with their own stories. These ranged from inappropriate advances at works socials to incidents as bad as the original complaint – but the one thing they had in common was a lack of belief that the management made any real attempt to investigate. Allegations of bullying and discrimination also emerged, but the sexual assault allegations was by far the dominant issue.

And so, Tyneside Cinema issued a statement saying that it takes the safety and wellbeing of staff very seriously, and all reports are investigated in line with a clear set of policies – but it wasn’t appropriate for them to go into details of an individual case. That went down like a lead balloon, with numerous people branding this a boilerplate statement or a whitewash (the replies to the statement on Twitter showing the mood). By Monday, a letter had been signed by over 140 current and former employees, the strongest evidence yet of widespread dissatisfaction (text here). I should stress that at this stage all of these reports of abuse and discrimination are at this stage just allegations – but the sheer number made, combined with the sheer number of people backing this up, is concerning.

Next, this was picked up by BBC Look North. If anything, this made things look even worse. According to their research, the complaints were mostly or entirely against senior members of staff, and took place mainly at works social events. Worse, emails seen by the BBC suggest that at least one occasion a perpetrator was allowed to leave quietly with the reason for departure hushed up. (That is completely against the rules in the Royal Court’s code of conduct, the only weak defence being that this dismissal appears to have taken place shortly before these rules were published.) So far, nothing in the BBC’s report has been denied.

Things came to a head on July 1st when the British Film Institute intervened. It is conceivable that a venue implicated this badly might opt to weather the storm with staff and media, but the BFI is a major funder who cannot be ignored. They said they were explicitly clear they expected a fully transparent and robust enquiry. They also asked Tyneside to step back from its leadership role of Film Hub North during the enquiry, but given they mentioned their responsibilities as funder twice in two paragraphs, this is surely a coded warning. A few hours before this statement, however, Tyneside Cinema published another statement saying that they would indeed be setting up such a review. It’s just about possible the timing was a steep coincidence, but it seems more likely that this announcement was a reaction to what the BFI had privately informed them of.

And mixed into all of this are two other employment disputes. There is a long-standing gripe over the use of zero-hour contracts. I don’t know off-hand whether Tyneside Cinema is any better or worse than other arts venues here, but when you have the power to terminate the contract of anyone who makes a complaint it becomes a far bigger problem. Then there are Coronavirus-related redundancies. It’s unclear how much this affects abuse allegations, but there’s understandably a lot of anger that this is still going on before the review is published.

At the time of writing, we are part-way through the review. There is already cynicism over whether this review really is independent – Save Tyneside’s Twitter feed has a poor opinion of it. This is a problem in its own right – even if the review is being done in good faith, it’s going to be much less effective if half the people involved don’t trust the process and therefore don’t participate. BFI is breathing down Tyneside Theatre’s neck here (and their patience already seems to be wearing thin), so I don’t believe Tyneside Cinema can do a whitewash and get away with it. It may, however, be used as damage control rather than a proper investigation, so I remain vigilant.

The management of Tyneside Cinema is allowed a defence, so I will refrain from passing judgement until I see what the report says. But I can’t think of any time where the allegations this detailed and widespread have turned out to be nothing. It seems the best management can hope for now is an admission of failings together with a plan of how to put things right. That may already be too late. Even if they have an unprecedented explanation in their favour, there’s the issue of trust. Regaining the trust of the public and the BFI looks difficult – regaining the trust of their workforce seems nigh-on impossible.

I could be wrong, but I don’t see how Tyneside Cinema’s management can recover from this.

[Update: After this was written, Tyneside Cinema issue a further statement over three tweets. It gives some information about how the enquiry will run, but there’s little sign this has regained the confidence of its critics. One controversial detail is that the trustees are going to get a “full and detailed report” whilst contributors will only get a “summary report”, and if they don’t soon explain why certain information is for trustees’ eyes only people are going to ask what’s being withheld. For what it’s worth, nothing in this statement really changes things for me. There is not enough separation between management and investigators to treat the report as fully independent, so this warrants the same level of scepticism and scrutiny as statements from management themselves.]

What this tells us

Now, there are a lot of things I could say about this sorry business – and when I can do so, I probably will. But as I said, there is little more I can say until we have more information. At the very least, I have to wait and see what this review says: in particular, whether management concedes any wrongdoing took place, and how the staff reacts to management’s response. If it escalates to legal action, I may have to wait for that to conclude too.

There is, however, one view I can express without prejudicing due process: we collectively got complacent. In the aftermath of Weinstein, some bad apples in British arts were identified and rooted out, and thanks to the work of Vicky Featherstone and the Royal Court, some tighter rules were drawn up (or in the case of venues like Tyneside Cinema, a similar equivalent BFI Code of Conduct). I’m not knocking this work, by the way – I think the Royal Court’s Code of Conduct is good. But this should have been treated as a first stage in putting things right. Instead, as Weinstein and the aftermath faded from the news, this was treated as job done.

Of relevance here: the implicit assumption that the solution is venues taking responsibility for what happens on their watch. In hindsight, this now looks naive. At best, the procedures in place at Tyneside have lost the confidence of most of the staff; at worst, they were just there for show. Either way, when things get this bad, an internal complaints procedure is not fit for purpose.

As for what we should do when complaints procedure doesn’t work, that’s a debate for later. Depending on what comes out of this, maybe the oversight of funders such as the BFI should be formalised and beefed up. Or maybe it should be something else completely. All I know on this occasion, relying on an arts organisation to police itself has failed. And failing once is once too many.

Postscript: I have turned off comments for this article because this is an ongoing matter involving serious allegations of criminality. If you are a representative of Tyneside Cinema, Turning Moment, or anyone making complaints against the venue, the usual right of reply applies. Contact me and I will make sure your response is published.

Update 24/09/20: And it’s happened. It may well be that this is simply bringing forward the inevitable but … the Chief Executive and Chair of Trustees are both resigning; the former in the next few days, the latter after the report comes out.

Although this is a momentous development, it doesn’t actually change that much. We still don’t know which allegations of abuse and complicity have been accepted as true, although Holli Keeble is now saying that “serious mistakes” have been made, which is a step up from just “mistakes” being made. They have also announced that Tyneside Cinema will not re-open until the report is published, suggesting that it’s a sufficiently serious matter to keep the cinema closed until things are resolved. (Of course, there is the matter of the staff who were made redundant by the now outgoing management – I can’t see them being too happy with the timing.)

Due process still applies, so I must stress that stepping down from a job whilst embroiled in scandal is not in itself proof of guilt or admission of liability. One possible scenario (and I’m being very kind here) is that the failings go wider than the two people in charge, but they nonetheless felt they could not be part of reforming the cinema with the baggage of their previous involvement clouding decisions. The more obvious and more cynical scenario, of course, is that they know what’s in the report and know they don’t have a hope in hell of keeping their jobs. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still hanging fire on the follow-up piece until the report comes out – we may have a tacit admission that Tyneside Cinema has screwed up badly, but we still don’t have details on where they concede they screwed up.

What I must make clear, however, is that there must be no golden handshakes for wrongdoers. If there is evidence in the draft report that Keeble and/or Armstrong covered for abusers, that still has to come out. There has previously been a practice of allowing people in charge to resign quietly in return for keeping the evidence against them under wraps; that is not an acceptable trade-off. The truth must still be known. I hope the scepticism over the review turns out to be unfounded. But if it looks like a whitewash, don’t stop asking questions.

Update 24/10/20: And the report is out. The full version is only available to the trustees, but the summary report is available to the public. (Page 5 broadly sums up the whole investigation.) In short: the allegations have been broadly upheld, and accepted by the trustees.

This has not, as of yet, been enough of pacify the staff who complained. Save Tyneside Cinema is yet to respond, merely saying at this stage they “already have questions”. Individual staff who have expressed opinions have been less patient, with faux shock from the Trustees being a typical criticism. The only small consolation for the outgoing management is that the report clears them of the most serious charge of a deliberate cover-up, instead putting it down to negligence and incompetence. I must say, my current feeling is that what’s happened is approaching the limits of what can be put down to bad decisions – however, so far, no-one is outright challenging the assertion of no cover-up.

So I am taking in the new evidence and waiting to see how Save Tyneside Cinema responds, but I’m just about ready to write Part 2. This is where I will consider whose fault it was that a culture like this was allowed to go undetected for so long – and not everyone’s going to like what I have to say. Stay tuned.