COMMENT: It is no longer acceptable for arts organisations to behave behave like abuse going on elsewhere isn’t their problem. If the arts industry does not take collective responsibility for its failures over safeguarding, it is complicit.
It was dispiriting enough writing about the alleged (and now pretty much proven) abuse at Tyneside Cinema, but I really didn’t expect another three scandals to follow. There came the abusive vice-principal at Ballet West that resulted in the closure of the Ballet school. Then just over a month ago it was back to the north-east with the region’s biggest and most powerful music promoter – and now, of course, it’s Noel Clarke. I will say up-front that in the latter two cases the allegations are still just allegations, Noel Clarke and SSD’s Steve Davis deny the allegations made against them personally, and we’ll need to wait for the investigations to finish before making a final conclusion. But I’m done with commentating on individual cases. It’s the sheer numbers I’m now concerned about. It now seems that every time we deal with one scandal and try to move on, another one takes its place. Four in twelve months, plus who knows how many regional scandals are happening outside the north-east.
I’m tired of scandal after after scandal after scandal being put down to a few bad apples. Something is going very badly wrong in the arts industry – but for years the arts industry seems to have been in a collective state of denial. One thing that all of these four scandals have in common:it was not the arts industry that brought thing to light; two broke through social media, and the other two came through investigative journalism. And yet – with a few honourable exceptions – everybody who’s anybody in the arts has historically behaved like it was always the responsibility of other people over there, and nothing to do with them, nothing needs to change. Enough is enough. This isn’t good enough any more.
In this post, I’m going to be reiterating a lot of what I said in the aftermath of Tyneside Cinema. My first reiterated point: can we please end this delusion that it was all solved in the aftermath of Weinstein? The codes of conduct that were drawn up are good if implemented correctly, but the fundamental flaw is that it assumes the leaderships of thousands of arts organisations are serious about about implementing it correctly, or at all. In each of the four scandals, the leaderships were at best negligent, and at worst the principal abuser. Why are we still so blase about allowing the people at the top to police themselves?
So apologies for repeating myself, but it feels like nobody was listening the first time round. This is no longer an afterthought to one problem – it runs much deeper. I will shortly come up with my proposed list of reforms I consider long overdue, but first, my case for why it’s no longer acceptable for the leadership of major arts institution to behave like abuse going on elsewhere isn’t their problem.
Why the arts industry must take collective responsibility
There were two things that rankled with me during and after the Tyneside Cinema episode. One is that the local arts media behaved like nothing had happened; the other is that the local cultural venues behaved like nothing had happened. The local arts media have since redeemed themselves by putting their foot down with SSD Concerts, but the local cultural venues have not. But it’s not just a few venues in Newcastle I have an issue with, it’s pretty much the entire arts industry. The prevailing attitude is that you need to keep your own house in order but other venues are none our your concern. I have three reasons why this isn’t enough.
Firstly, for all the criticism I have over lack of action, the arts industry is better placed than anyone else to stand up to wrongdoing. Why? Because the arts industry understands itself than the police or media or online activists ever will. I believe few people outside of the arts properly understand how uniquely vulnerable arts workers are; but the lack of job security for most workers, combined with how much arts workers want to be part this sector, means that they will tolerate all sorts of bad behaviour; long after an equivalent worker in a different job would have gone to an employment tribunal. It is in no-one’s interests (except the abusers) for justice to be in the hands of people who naively ask “Why didn’t you just quit and claim constructive dismissal?”
The second reason is that major arts organisations don’t exist in bubbles; they exist in a collective bubble of mutual support. It is unheard of for an arts organisation to succeed without associating with their peers; they all depend on public profile, and one of the biggest driving factors to earning respect and gaining prominence is endorsement from other respected and prominent groups. Which is usually fine – why shouldn’t the arts world all be in it together? Unfortunately, that means they’re in it for better or worse. With countless scandals going unchecked because the perpetrator and/or organisation was a respected figure, you can’t suddenly back away and claim the mutual support you gave each other had nothing to do with it. That doesn’t make the abuse your fault, but it does put the onus on you to help put things right.
And the third reason? … Well, the arts industry created that one for themselves. As we saw last year, the arts industry is perfectly capable of fighting for the moral high ground when it wants to. No-one can blame cultural venues in UK for the actions of a racist psychopath in Minneapolis, but that didn’t stop them running a month-long campaign denouncing racism in general. A far cry from the tumbleweed with Tyneside cinema barely weeks later. Having proclaimed so loudly that one important issue is the responsibility of everyone to fight, you can’t turn around and say another equally important issue is nothing to do with you – and certainly not when it’s happening on your doorstep.
The only excuse I would accept for inaction is if there’s nothing you can do to help. And for small organisations and freelancers, that may be so. But there’s a lot that the major organisations could do, from BAFTA to funding bodies to NPOs. And this what I will get on to next.
What the arts industry could do if it wants to
At the moment, the big debate is how whether BAFTA should have withdrawn its award sooner. I’m not interested in that. I don’t care whether BAFTA knew something a few weeks before the rest of us. I’m interest in what the entire arts industry has – or rather has not – been doing in the last three years.
Before I embark of a list telling others what to do, it’s only fair to consider what the arts industry has already done. The codes of conduct created by the Royal Court and others as a response to Weinstein were good, and took on board some concepts that previously had not been considered, such as power imbalances, and the need to complete investigations rather than let abusers leave quietly and move on unchecked. The other initiative is performing and commissioning lots of plays showing why sexism is abuse is bad. I’m less enthused by that; the logic there appears to be counting on these plays changing society, so that would-be abusers are educated into being less sexist and gropey.
Regardless, both of these fall down on the same problem: abusers don’t care. They know what they’re doing, they know it’s wrong, they know what society thinks of it – and they carry on doing it. In the event that moral scolding gets to them, they’ll just tell themselves that it doesn’t apply to them and it’s not their fault anyway. And if abusers are leading an arts organisation (or have the leadership wrapped round their finger) no guidelines will make a difference. If anything, they become a convenient smokescreen: abusers use it to claim they take the matter seriously, when they really just investigate themselves and clear themselves of wrongdoing.
Investigative journalists and social media can bring the worst offenders to book, but not before numerous victims end up on the receiving end. Bottom like is that the rules the arts industry created for themselves are only optional for people at the top, with abusers free to ignore it as they please. If the arts industry wants to stop this, they are going to take measures that abusers cannot ignore.
These are my suggestions:
1) Stop excusing bad behaviour as “artistic temperament”: I think the arts industry may be finally getting this one, but I want to make sure. There is a long-standing notion that the greatest artists we have aren’t like the rest of us. Sometimes that means accepting eccentricities, and that’s fine – in fact, you should be fine with eccentricities anyway – but more often than not it means tolerating reprehensible behaviour that no-one else would get away with. Far from bullying or leching considered an embarrassing detail they’re forced to turn a blind eye to, it’s openly tolerated as an intrinsic component of their creative genius. Even Polanski’s kiddy-fiddling gets a free pass because of his artistic achievements. No excuses: if a random member of crew would be out on their arse for doing something bad, the same should apply to the greatest directors, actors and producers.
2) Have the difficult discussion about socialising: There’s a huge overlap between business and pleasure in the arts. Are we going to ban arts workers from forming relationships just because they got to know each other on arts-related socials? Of course not. But this grey area is easily exploited by abusers, and I’ve heard far too many horror stories involving arts leaders propositioning juniors workers in social settings, under the pretext of works matters. Most of the scandals I’ve read about use social settings at least some of the time. You can start by gathering these stories together, and look for patterns: who’s doing this, when and how they do it, and what excuses they use. From this we might be able to list of what practices are and aren’t acceptable. It won’t be easy – but we’ll never solve this problem as long as the arts industry only considers what’s easy.
3) End abuse of non-disclosure agreements: Some people are starting to wise up to this, but some people are still defending indiscriminate use of NDAs. Proponents of NDAs will have you believe they are vital tool in the film industry, to protect sensitive information from being leaked. Exactly what information they’re worried about gets a bit vague, with reasons ranging from plot spoilers to other studios stealing ideas – but just be be on the safe side they forbid you from disclosing absolutely anything. Like whether the director/producer abused you, sexually or otherwise. I’d say five years is the absolute maximum we should be tolerating for NDAs – any longer at it only protects people with something to hide. And any arts organisation thinking of doing business with such an employer should steer clear if they value anybody’s safety.
4) Get nude scenes out of drama schools: I don’t know about you, but I am strongly of the opinion that women (and men) should NOT have to get naked on stage or screen in order to have a career in acting. If actors do this by choice, that’s fine, provided there’s enough opportunities around for those who don’t. However, the one place where you don’t have a fair opportunity to say no is in drama courses. Anecdotally, I have heard complaints from people who had this decision made for them – even if in theory you can refuse, you are saying no to people who decide your grades and write your references. And yet I’ve read far too many stories in the arts media that treating this as if it’s a rite of passage for “proper” actors. So it’s no wonder that Noel Clarke got nothing more than a slap on the wrist for those notorious unannounced improv/undressing sessions – this sort of thing is shrugged off as normal behaviour.
5) Set up a proper independent complaints procedure against artistic leaders: And by “proper” and “independent”, I don’t mean an HR department in the payroll of management. I can’t think of a single time an HR department has successfully stood up to an abusive manager, but I can think of many times an HR department has been implicated as complicit. Independent reviews commissioned by management under fire are better, but that tends to only happen after intense pressure from media or social media. In theory you make the board of trustees responsible for complaints, but when the exposure and resignation of a respected artistic director could cripple or shut down the organisation, there’s bound to be an incentive to not look too hard. No, complaints against anyone senior is going to have to be handled externally by someone who doesn’t have a horse in a race. The arts industry can decide amongst themselves how this is going to work, but they have to do something different; all I know is that self-policing is not working – at least, not when it matters the most.
6) Give whistleblowers somewhere to go: It is ridiculous that there are whistleblowing hotlines for every kind of financial malpractice from rogue city trading to benefit fraud, but there is no equivalent for predatory employers. The closest we have is the ability to report “safeguarding concerns” for children and vulnerable adults; but I think we’ve seen enough examples of why – in the wrong job – you don’t need a learning disability to be vulnerable. I am in no doubt that if there had been the means to confidentially report the sort of thing Noel Clarke is alleged to have done, shit like that would be stopped years earlier. An obvious problem? Whoever is put in charge of this is going to have a hell of a job knowing when to act and when to give the benefit of the doubt. But we worked this out for child protection, we can work it out here too.
7) Say no to victimisation and blacklisting: Some people who have come forward have quipped that they’re probably burning all their bridges by doing this. That is completely wrong. Victimisation (reprisals against someone who made a complaint, even if not upheld) and blacklisting (refusing to hire people known to have complained about another employer) are both illegal, but with so much of the arts sector based on casual work, it’s almost impossible to enforce. How much victimisation and blacklisting actually happens? We don’t know – but it’s the fear of victimisation and blacklisting that’s the barrier to complaining. Arts organisations could do a lot to counter this my making it clear that the will always support the right to speak out, whether or not the complaint is proven, and they will never discriminate against someone who’s made a complaint in the past. That’s true, isn’t it? I think we should be told either way.
8) Find the courage to stand up to your friends: It is the final one that I think it the arts industry’s biggest collective failure. Why was there weeks of outrage from local cultural venues over Harvey Weinstein and the George Floyd murder but not a peep of protest over one of their own? I suspect it comes down to doing what’s easy. There is no down sides to joining in the (justified) dogpile on disgraced movie mogul or racist cops; but you stand to lose a lot more, both personally and professionally, by calling out people at other organisations who you work with. But if you don’t, who will? I don’t know how far they can go, but they can certainly go further than the non-reaction when the Tyneside Cinema scandal blew up. And, yes, the worst scandals do eventually come to light through investigative journalism or social media, but only after it goes on for years and years. That, I believe, is the price of inaction.
A footnote for the sceptics
Before I close this, I want to address a side point. Some people have been expressing concern over Noel Clarke losing his job to trial by media. They in turn are being accused of real motives ranging from being in denial to siding with the abuser; however, I am going to be kind and take Noel Clarke’s defenders’ arguments at face value. Regardless, here’s a few words for the sceptics, on why you should support what I’m calling for.
Firstly, I don’t want to get bogged down in one case – at the moment I’m interesting in the wider arts industry – but Noel Clarke has been treated fairly. I’m extremely hesitant to judge guilt based on one person’s word against another’s, but there’s a lot more to that here, and I’m not just talking about the numbers involved. There is a pattern of behaviour, both between the allegations themselves and with verified supporting evidence (such nude auditions, something that almost everyone else things aren’t appropriate). On top of that, some of the denials are suspiciously non-specific, such as saying he “does not recall” sending a dick pic – one would think you would know for definite whether or not you did that, unless of course you do that all the time. Furthermore, it is perfectly normal to be suspended from a job if the evidence is strong enough. Clarke still has the right to a defence – that is a universal right granted to everyone, no matter how hopeless the prospects. I haven’t a clue how he can explain his way out of this, but if he somehow manages to clear his name, he can go back to what he was doing.
Nevertheless, the Guardian is in the same boat as any paper – it makes money from selling papers, not by delivering justice. Has the Guardian compromised on justice in order to get the most sensational story? I don’t think it has. But has any paper ever done that? Most definitely yes. The other side of this is the response of the people with the power to punish the accused. Did they fire the accused because the story all over the media because they believe it to be true, or are they simply going along with whatever protects their reputation? Trial by media may be necessary – it’s sadly hard to see what else would have brought down Harvey Weinstein – but it’s far from ideal.
Well folks, that is another reason why complaints against senior figures in the arts should be investigated properly. Justice is just as much about protecting the innocent as it is about bring the guilty to book. We need a system where the investigators don’t have any competing interests. They should not be swayed by which story generates the most sales. They should not be swayed by which decision gives the better PR. There must be absolutely no distractions from doing everything they can to discover the truth and masking a fair and verdict.
A proper process is a win-win situation either way. If the subject of the controversy is wrongly accused, the investigation will confirm this, however unpopular this individual decision may be. Provided the investigator has the trust of the arts community, the innocent can use the verdict to clear their name and move on with their life – something you won’t get from a half-abandoned investigative journalism piece. If the subject is found guilty, of course, it’s open season. Do your worst.
And if you still have a problem with a system where the accused can be properly investigated, found guilty and face the consequences – well, maybe it’s not really the innocent who you want to protect. Just saying.
The arts industry has failed its workers. And as more and more scandals break, the workers have every right to be angry. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world did not operate in a vacuum – they operated in a culture of tacit acceptance. So long as people in power were considered a asset to film or theatre or dance or whatever, other people in positions of power – the people who could have put a stop to it – didn’t want to know. It was only ever when things were exposed to the public eye that action was taken. And, I’m sorry to say, I’m yet to be convinced this has truly changed.
The deep-rooted problem with the arts is that they talk as if they own the moral high ground, but they have a track record of only doing the right thing when it’s easy. In the post-Weinstein era this meant pledging reform and adopting codes of conduct. I have no problem with the codes of conduct themselves, nor the people who put them together – it is good that leaders of arts organisations who want to do the right thing have a robust standard to work to. But I really do have a problem with the wider industry declaring job done, because the reason why the major sandals were so widespread is that some arts leaders didn’t want to do the right thing. They were negligent, or wrapped round the finger of a major star, or the abusers themselves. A code of conduct that is only optional has no impact where it matters.
The only defence I can offer the arts industry is naivety. In late 2017, everyone was crying out for something to be done, and something was done – we only found out later that the something they settled on wasn’t enough. But my patience with this defence is running out rapidly. With apparently four scandals or more in less than a year – all down to leaderships of individual arts organisations ignoring the codes of conduct they signed up to – the arts industry is going to have to come up with something that they cannot ignore. There are many options open to them, but the only real deterrent at the moment is eventual exposure in the papers or on the internet – and that only happens after abusers have gone unchecked for years. It should not take that long.
My worry about the fallout surrounding Noel Clarke is that the arts industry will once again pick the easy option over the right option. The easy option is more of the same, strengthening codes of conduct and doubling down on moral rhetoric, but doing little about those abusers who are powerful enough to take no notice. The right course of action means making some difficult decisions. Where does socialising end and predatory behaviour begin? How are witnesses supposed to report abuse? What recourse should there be when the leadership of an arts organisation sides with the abusers? When do you have a duty to denounce your peers? I’m prepared to consider any answer on offer, but at the moment there’s no answers on offer.
The arts industry has already had one chance to get its house in order, and they blew it. I really hope they learn their lesson second time round. If we end up here once again with a fresh round of scandals and a fresh set of victims that the arts industry failed to protect, I don’t think I’ll be in a mood for a third chance.