Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

Note: I wrote this article on the 3rd April, after Narc magazine published its editorial about not covering SSD events but before the manager announced his resignation – that happened between writing the first draft and linking the sources. However, I am posting this anyway, as what I said still applies.

COMMENT: It is too soon to pass judgement on the sexual harassment allegations on Glassdoor. But as long as SSD continue to respond to the allegations the way they are, NARC Magazine is correct to stop covering their events.

When I wound up my coverage of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, I finished by saying I did not want to come back in a few years’ time when the next scandal breaks and ask why nothing was done. Well, never mind years – it is barely six months since the damning report and the resignation of the CEO and Chair of Trustees and we’ve got another case on our hands. This time, it’s in the music scene, specifically in relation to SSD Concerts, regarded by many as the leading music promoter in the north-east from big events to the grass roots. On this occasion, however, we do not have to wait for pressure from a major funder before action is taken; numerous bands and venues have cut ties in protest.

Normally, when an organisation is implicated in serious allegations, I open my coverage with an examination of the evidence available. And that is indeed what I tried to do here; it was slow business, with events continually moving as was I writing. However, one event has taken place that has spurred me into action: NARC magazine has announced it is ceasing its coverage of SSD events. (See also this page for numerous links to background info.) It is fair to note that – unlike Tyneside Cinema, where it was possible to sit on the fence – NARC, as a magazine dominated by music coverage, had to pick a side this time. But it is my understanding (based on an off-the-record source that I trust) that this editorial decision was not made out of obligation, but was taken proactively and wholeheartedly. Having criticised the local arts media for inaction during previous scandals, I shall now back them up for doing the right thing.

My reasons are slightly different to NARC’s. SSD Concerts continue to deny all of the allegations (press releases here and here), and amongst their arguments is that one that they are subjected to “trial by social media”. I too am uneasy about trial by social media; it might not always be guilty until proven innocent, as manager Steve Davis suggests, but it can turn into a popularity contest with hard-core fans defending their side no matter what. If there was any alternative I wouldn’t even consider this, but the unfortunate fact is that, all too often, social media scrutiny succeeds in bringing wrongdoers to book where laws and tribunals fail. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, at the time of writing, the most serious claims are at present just anonymous reviews on Glassdoor. So I have not judged SSD Concerts on these allegations. I am instead judging them on their own words, on the record.

The first and most glaring problem with the argument is their expectation that the fact a complaint procedure merely exists means everything must be taken on trust. As anyone with any grasp of employment law knows, lack of proof of harassment isn’t good enough for an employer – you need to show what you’re doing to prevent it happening. This means mechanisms to ensure allegations are properly listened to, investigated, and dealt with. SSD claims to have all of these, and states that it takes the welfare of its employees very seriously, but the problem is that this is exactly the same claim made by Tyneside Cinema – and that claim, as you may recall, fell apart as soon as someone scrutinised what was actually going on. Simply stating you don’t tolerate bullying didn’t cut it then, and it doesn’t cut it now – and certainly not when one of the allegations is that complaints are being dismissed out of hand.

The big problem, though, is that they have done the one thing you absolutely do not do when a complaint is made: decry it as false without even listening or investigating. If the allegations were all against one individual in a company, it would be understandable (albeit ill-advised) if that person angrily denied everything – after all, the person knows better than anybody else whether they are true. However, these allegations are made against senior management in general. Short of the managing director personally supervising every single interaction between management and staff, he cannot possibly know whether or not these things happened. How is the fair complaints procedure they talk about supposed to work, if they’ve already decided in the same statement that the alleged events were made up?

That is not the only red line he has crossed. Another thing that is completely out of order is judging the motives of the complainants without evidence – something SSD Entertainment did when they claimed the posts are malicious. Even if you know an allegation is untrue, it is quite something else to prove that the people saying this knew it was false and made it anyway in bad faith. Then there is the company’s attitude to whistleblowers. SSD Concerts is not the only company to have its social media account hacked in order to embarrass the company, but most companies just let this go. Encouraging the Police to get the hacker arrested is not normal behaviour. And, yes, they were within their legal rights to do that – legally, there is no public interest defence for hacking. However, this, combined with their original statement that they are “taking legal advice to get to the bottom of these targeted, hurtful and simply untruthful comments” really does come across as trying to silence criticism, through a mixture of reprisals and veiled threats. Why the determination to stifle criticism instead of addressing it?

And I could go on. I haven’t even listed half the reasons I find their side of the story hard to believe. The point is that this is not in the slightest the response I would expect from a company with nothing to hide. At the very least, I would expect from a company doing the right thing would be a promise to investigate all of these claims, and invite complainants to name names and provide any further evidence, along with a promise of no reprisals for those who complain. Exactly how they convince complainants that promise of no reprisals would be kept and that the investigation won’t be run by the people being investigated is up to them. Do that bare minimum, that we can talk.

All of this, of course, hinges on a generous concession I’m allowing Steve Davis: I am keeping open the possibility that SSD Concerts has not committed wrongdoing and instead merely guilty of shortcomings in their complaints process and PR operations. Some might say I’m being too generous – the alternative, of course, is that the allegations are substantially accurate. Of course a guilty party’s they’re not going to want a fair investigation (an internal one they can control doesn’t count). In that scenario, the response smacks of an attempt to deflect criticism with talk of Instagram hacking and trial by social media – and, if you want to be really harsh, an attempt at intimidation of victims and witnesses with implied legal threats. But, as I said, I’m not here to judge on the allegations one way or the other. It’s just that either way, their conduct is unacceptable. The only question is just how unacceptable it turns out to be.

So I will be joining NARC in refusing to cover events associated with SSD Concerts, for the little difference it will make. (SSD Concerts is almost all music, but they were involved in Northern Stage’s The Last Ship, so there is a small crossover.) But NARC’s move is far more important. I don’t know whether SSD Concerts have any harassers or abusers in their ranks, but what I do know is that the worst offenders in the arts are the people who think they can get away with it forever. One of the things that entrenches this is when the arts media continues to cover they events like nothing’s happened – and in the aftermath of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, that’s what how I fear things would always be. I have never been more happy to have been proven wrong.

There are currently several different organisations reaching to those affected for their accounts – once these have run their course, we should have a much better idea how many of the Glassdoor stories can be verified. If, as many people already expect, the anonymous stories are substantiated, I will have mixed feelings. For all my questions of “how long to the next scandal”, I genuinely hoped Tyneside Cinema would be the one bad apple. It now feels more like the tip of the iceberg. But the positive side of this is how quickly the north-east grass roots has responded. I will always be on the side of victims and justice, but for once I think the tide is turning. Perpetrators be warned: you can no longer count of the rest of us turning a blind eye.

Maybe, just maybe, this time we can really say Time’s Up.

Postscript: As I mentioned at the top, between writing this and publishing, the manager has resigned. The main reason I chose to publish this anyway is that it doesn’t change much. The fact the person in charged resigned is not in itself proof the allegations are true, but neither does it mean the personal reasons cited in the latest statement must be accepted at face value.

It might be harsh – and I don’t like kicking public figures when they’re down – but the correct response from all the media outlets investigating the claims is to carry on investigating. If the allegations against Steve Davis personally are proven true, the workers at the companies he might move on to have a right to know. Equally, it would be wrong to allow him to be used as a scapegoat; it would be terrible if harassment carried on unchecked by the rest of management just because we got the scalp we were after. So still keep an eye out over the next week or two to see what comes out.

Postscript 2: Since this post refers to allegations that may yet escalate into criminal charges, once more I have turned off the comments. If I have mentioned you in this article, or you’re the representative of someone who is, the right of reply remains unchanged. Contact me and I’ll make sure you have your say.

Update 07/04/21: Wasn’t planning to add anything, but oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, they really are digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole over this. First something emerged that appears to be an email sent to employees which stated that Steve Davis’s stepping down actually mean moving to another role in the company. After this emerged with the uproar you’d expect, SSD then released another statement saying that he was leaving the company completely. The statement from Steve Davis made then would have been a good one had this been made earlier; doing this after accusing everybody of malice, however, comes across as doing the bare minimum required for damage control.

Then some people reported getting emails from See Tickets saying that a gig from Lanterns of the Lake in December was cancelled because of logistics with Coronavirus. That is so obviously bollocks; anyone who’s been following this knows that Lanterns on the Lake didn’t cancel; it’s just that both they and their venue The Boiler Shop cut ties with SSD concerns in protest over their conduct – and besides, nobody else is fretting of Covid logistics for an event several months after the vaccine roll-out is expected to be complete. (Lanterns on the Lake, unsurprisingly, are narked off that someone’s been saying their gig’s cancelled, when all you need to do is re-book tickets.) I suppose the only defence here is that we can’t be certain that non-reason was supplied by SSD – although I can’t think where else that cock-and-bull story would have come from.

You see, it’s exactly these sort of little porkies that makes me want to call bullshit on everything they say. For the sexual harassment claims, there still isn’t much to go on beyond the Glassdoor reviews; but if things as petty as a cancellation email contain statements that are so easily proven false, why should I trust anything they say over the more serious charges?

The only positive development since Sunday is that SSD Concerts has finally conceded to allow an independent review. Exactly how much we can trust this promise is another matter, but it’s only fair to remember that trust in the Tyneside Cinema review was also rock-bottom; in the end, that turned out pretty scathing. There is still hope SSD Concerts will eventually do the right thing – but at the moment, it looks like they’re being dragged kicking and screaming.