In Which Little Alison Gets Cross ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Which Little Alison Gets Cross

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:

Andrew Jaspan
The Age
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:

Hi Alison,
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.

Your faithfully

Alison Croggon


Peter said...

Nicely done.

If it makes you feel any better, Ray Cassin's TV column in the Saturday Age was some of the most appallingly boring dross ever put to paper. Another eg of the maxim: film critics love film, theatre critics love theatre, television critics hate television.

Avi said...

Well done, Alison. It'll be interesting to hear whether you actually get a response this time. I was particularly intrigued by the point you made about The Age being a big MIAF sponsor - surely they'd want to balance the argument in their favour just a little?

Merry Christmas, etc!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Avi and Peter. Here it's the principle that gets me - if they had run something by someone else that took issue with Usher, I would have had no complaints at all. But not only have they not sought other responses, they have not run something perfectly decent - after all, I have all that journalistic training - that they were offered.

I don't know why they think that Edmunds is the only one who can answer (though it does seem rather like cornering someone - it does place her in an invidious position). It's not as if the Melbourne Festival isn't a big public event in which other people might be interested. And if they're sick of my voice always saying the same things, why aren't they sick of Usher's?

I'll keep you posted if anything happens. Not sanguine, I do confess.

Anonymous said...

I imagine this post will very quickly inspire much back-slapping and many congratulations; all of which will be deserved, of course, though perhaps a thank-you is what's really in order. There's a critical malaise in this country, more or less across the board, and you, Alison, are really fighting against it; not only here online (which is important but not a broadly effective way), but with letters like this (and your opinion pieces that have been published) as well. Even if such attempts done effect much change, they're at least an attempt to, out there on the front line. I hope to join you shortly. So: thank-you.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Matthew. Your blog is going great guns, btw - some wonderful posts lately! It's encouraging to see intelligent minds out there thinking. And it does make a great difference, even if it doesn't necessarily break the surface.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alison; not only for the kind words, but also for reading (next time leave a comment)! Although I have to admit, the objects of my reviews have been a little bourgeois as of late, I think. I'm going to make more of attempt to mix it up next year; I'm lucky in that Melbourne Stage give me the freedom to experiment (that they published the chair-centric review of Figaro, for example, is pretty incredible).

I'm also going to try to weasel my way into The Age and A2. My plan is to sell myself as a young (I'm only twenty-one) new voice; someone 'fresh' and 'innovative'. Who knows? They might just buy it...

(Apologies for the spelling and structural mistakes in the earlier message; I was in a rush.)

richardwatts said...

Alison, have you received any response, or must we assume that Robin Usher's self-appointed mandate to belittle Edmund's directorial approach to MIAF is supported at the highest echelons of The Age?

Alison Croggon said...

Not a peep, Richard. I'll give it another week, but, um, I suspected that I would get no response. I suspect actually that nobody cares much. Maybe the arts ("entertainment", after all) aren't important enough to apply to them the same ethics that journalists are supposed to apply to everything else.