Friday, October 28, 2011

Classical music must come clean on toxic patronage


Manipulation by the mainstream media reached new heights in yesterday's BBC News coverage of the latest radio audience trends. Here is what BBC News said about Radio 3's performance:
Classical station Radio 3 maintained a listenership of above two million in the new figures.
By contrast this is the Guardian's somewhat more accurate report:
Radio 3 suffers biggest BBC radio audience fall - It traditionally enjoys a surge in summer listening on the back of the Proms, the world's greatest classical music festival. But BBC Radio 3, which recently introduced changes to its schedule in a bid to broaden its appeal, lost more listeners than any other BBC national radio station in the three months to 18 September. Radio 3 had an average of 2.05 million weekly listeners across the quarter, down 5.6% on the previous three months and 4.3% year-on-year, according to official Rajar statistics published on Thursday.
It is generally accepted that impartiality is a thing of the past at the BBC, as evidenced by their flagship current affairs programme Panorama recently being forced to apologise after footage used in an exposé of child labour in India was found to be "not authentic". But yesterday's example of using statistical sleight of hand to turn bad news into good news merits closer examination as it has widespread implications for classical music.


First, with apologies to UK readers, some brief background about the BBC. A Royal Charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC. It sets out the public purposes of the BBC, guarantees its independence, and outlines the duties of the Trust and the Executive Board. The Charter runs for ten years and the next renewal date is 31 December 2016. Funding for the BBC's domestic broadcasting services comes from the TV Licence which is payable by all UK households with a TV receiver. The Government sets the level of the licence fee and recently decided to freeze it at its 2010 level of £145.50 until the end of the current BBC Charter period in 2016. .

Which means that over the next five years two decisions will be taken which profoundly affect the future of the BBC. These decisions are in what form will the all important Charter be renewed, and secondly, how much will the BBC will have to spend. Those two decisions need to be viewed in the context of the BBC's current image problem. The case of the faked Panorama footage has already been cited. A BBC Radio 2 programme broadcast in October 2008 resulted in a fine of £150,000 when the UK independent broadcast regulator found it to be "gratuitously offensive, humiliating and demeaning". These examples of evidential unprofessionalism have been mixed with concerns about falling BBC quality standards and outrage at executive salaries and expenses. Which means the BBC find themselves in a difficult position when lobbying for the renewal of their Charter and a hike in their income.


Which is where arts and culture in general and classical music in particular come in. That blatant misrepresentation of the Radio 3 audience trend was not a simple case of trying to bury some bad news by statistical obfuscation. Look at the lead section of the story again in my header image - Radio 4's audience loss was not airbrushed out, so why was Radio 3's?

Lobbying has already started for the 2016 Charter renewal and license fee. Central to the beleagured BBC's demand for a generous settlement is their arts and culture patronage. Lavish presentations are being drafted showcasing BBC Radio 3's achievements, including building its audience, increasing accessibility and stewardship of that jewel in the cultural crown, the BBC Proms. Which is why the Proms were ring-fenced in the recent BBC cuts and why the Ulster Orchestra, which is far away from the London-centric lobbying process, had its broadcast output cut.

Many have responded with disbelief over what has happened recently at Radio 3. But when network controller Roger Wright's "innovations" are viewed through the prism of the Charter and license fee negotiation process, things become much clearer. Yes, guaranteed budgets of more than £3 billion for the whole BBC and £50 million for Radio 3 allows peerless, and sometimes not so peerless, programmes to be created. I once worked for the BBC and have written here of how the Proms changed my life. But we also need to acknowledge that short term self-interest is a major factor in the BBC's support of classical music.


Toxic sponsorship from financial institutions including UBS was the subject of my recent post about the Lucerne Summer Festival. The BBC's support of classical music needs to be recognised for what it is, another form of toxic patronage, which I will define as sponsorship that furthers a hidden and ethically questionable agenda. Just yesterday I wrote in praise of the spiritually themed White Light Festival at the Lincoln Centre in New York which offers "authentic encounters with one’s interior self" However, I failed to mention that the White Light Festival's principal sponsor is Time Warner, whose businesses include TW Cable, which markets eight adult pornography channels.

So what to do? Classical music's serious money habit coupled with the worsening global economy means toxic sponsorship may be the only way to survive. But classical music must come clean about its acceptance of this form of patronage. If audiences understood where the money was coming from the sponsor's benevolence might be viewed in a different light. How about for starters a voluntary scheme where arts organisations prominently list the name and ethical track record of their sponsors? That way classical music would get the money and, unlike yesterday's BBC News story, the audience would get the truth.


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