Here is a picture of TN this week. Not a happy blogger, is she?
To drive away the clouds louring o'er this house (and just before Christmas, too) I wrote yesterday to Mr Andrew Jaspan, Editor of The Age. And I instantly felt a lot better.
It probably won't achieve much, beyond slamming shut the teeny tiny door that has allowed me to masquerade as an opinion journalist in The Age now and again. (Though I have a feeling that I've already been crossed off Opinion Editor Ray Cassin's Christmas card list.) But it seems worth saying, all the same. I've been watching the most interesting things in Melbourne get squashed flat for 25 years and, my dears, I'm sick of it.
With any luck Mr Jaspan is squinting over his morning coffee at this letter:
250 Spencer St
Melbourne VIC 3001
December 21, 2006
Re: Balanced arts coverage in The Age.
Dear Mr Jaspan
I am writing because I am concerned about the balance of arts coverage in your newspaper. I am sorry for the length of this letter, but I wish to say clearly why, in this instance, I am moved to write.
I am a former journalist (Melbourne Herald, Melbourne theatre critic for The Bulletin) who now writes fiction for a living. One of my activities is the blog Theatre Notes, a theatre review blog I began in 2004. Since it began, it has become a respected and credible voice in the arts world: it was highly praised as an exceptional blog in the introduction to SMH arts writer Angela Bennie’s collection of criticism, Crème de la Phlegm (MUP), and your dance critic Hilary Crampton recently noted it favourably in an article on criticism in Artshub. And so on. I mention this in case the word “blog” makes you think of teenagers on My Space.
Occasionally I freelance – I review for the ABC Radio’s The Book Show and have written opinion pieces for your newspaper, usually in response to current issues of one kind and another. If you’d like to check them out, they are online. One of them, published on July 29, was a very different opinion on the Melbourne Festival than those expressed by Robin Usher and Peter Craven in your newspaper.
Last week, at a lunch for “key media people” to which I was invited, along with Raymond Gill, Robin Usher and other selected arts writers, MIAF announced that Kristy Edmunds’ term as artistic director was to be extended. Predictably, given his history of such pieces, Robin Usher then wrote an opinion piece (December 14) slamming that decision and attacking Edmunds’ programming. It was, in my view, a very slanted article that omitted some important points. Early on Friday morning (December 15), I submitted a short piece of my own (attached) to Opinion Editor Ray Cassin outlining a counter-argument. It was a little bit rude, but not much. I can’t see anything wrong with it as a lively piece of opinion writing.
Cassin’s first email reply was, I thought, very odd. He said:
Kristy Edmunds has privately replied to Robin Usher. As with the last round on this topic, she seems to prefer to leave it that way, rather than replying in print. I'll leave it that way, too.
I responded that “Usher's article is a broadside, and in the interest of balance, some corrective points need to be made publicly and with equal prominence. By someone else, if not me.” When I double checked on the meaning of the first mail, asking if he really meant that if Edmunds didn’t respond, no one would, he replied: “I think I said that I'd rather wait for a response ‘from the Festival’. As I did last time. As you'll recall, when that wasn't forthcoming I ran yours.”
On Monday, I checked with the MIAF PR whether Edmunds would be responding, and Prue Bassett told me that she thought it would be “inappropriate”. I then wrote to Cassin again early on Tuesday, informing him of this and asking whether he would be running my piece. He has not replied. Nor has he replied to my polite follow-up email, in which I said I was concerned that the story was getting cold and asked whether he intended to run any response, by me or someone else.
I have been checking The Age’s opinion and arts pages, and have seen nothing so far that answers Usher’s article. There have been, on the other hand, two interviews by Usher which bring up the Melbourne Festival “debate”, one with the Arts Minister Lynne Kosky and one with the leader of the Opposition, Ted Baillieu.
I wish to make clear that there is – in stark contrast to Usher’s reports – a constituency in Melbourne for the kind of things Edmunds does. I was amazed last year at the continual claims of poor attendance, when I went to so many events that were full. There might be division among Melbourne’s arts habitues about MIAF programming, and even those supportive of her general vision have criticisms; but there is no doubt that her program is sparking a lot of interest and discussion, especially among younger people.
In contrast to the picture painted by Usher, Edmunds strongly supports and programs local artists. MIAF private sponsorship is rising. The audience attendance figures and responses are in fact positive indicators. And so on. I don’t understand why there is no space for this to be said in The Age.
It makes it hard not to suspect that Edmunds is being targeted. Whether this is the case or not – I am perfectly aware of the issue of competing space – the evasion of the responsibility to run a differing opinion (unless it comes from Edmunds herself) gives the inaccurate and unfair perception that Edmunds’ ideas have no support in the community. And it can hardly be called “debate” if only one view is on show.
A festival focusing on contemporary art – especially one that foregrounds innovative artists from Melbourne – is always going to upset some conservative elements in Melbourne’s arts community, but they are not the only or even the majority voices. Of course I recognise that they are entitled to their opinion. What concerns me is that these voices are given an imbalanced prominence in The Age. Frankly, it’s not MIAF that’s “out of touch”.
As The Age is also a sponsor of the Melbourne Festival, this unremittingly negative coverage must be having a major effect on public perceptions. Most people without an insider knowledge of the arts read The Age as an authority on these matters. It may well be – and may well be intended to be – a self-fulfilling prophecy. If so, this seems to me an egregious misuse of the paper’s authority.
I look forward to hearing your response.