Criticism in the age of PR spin ~ theatre notes

Friday, September 04, 2009

Criticism in the age of PR spin

Stephanie Bunbury today reports on the film industry's hard ball tactics with critics and journalists in today's Age, remarking that Australian newspapers are still refreshingly old-fashioned on the question of letting PR hacks vet stories or determine where they will run in the paper. And phew for that. Bunbury's story is nothing we haven't heard before, but it's still a bit jaw-dropping.

Ms TN has had her share of cold shoulders from those objecting to reviews that don't fit the publicity line, but that's par for the course. There was that notorious incident, back in neolithic times, when a prominent artistic director waged a long, public and unsuccessful campaign to get me sacked from the Bulletin. But although that campaign didn't work, others that attracted no publicity did: I know of several instances over the past couple of decades where local companies discreetly pressured editors to sack unfriendly critics. I still don't know how the same companies then have the gall to complain about the low standard of theatre criticism.

I like to think that things have changed in the past few years. Certainly the arrival of blogs has meant a shift towards an emphasis on critical discourse, and the proliferation of debate has meant that it's much more difficult for companies to control their PR, especially as it's impossible to sack bloggers. And there's a much wider perception among artists themselves that an honest and considered review, even if it's unflattering, is better than what John Clarke once memorably called "favourable crap". Not so, it seems, in Los Angeles, where what's at stake is millions of bucks. But it shows that the glossy capitalist machine called Hollywood is as effective in repressing dissent as any small-time ex-Soviet regime. No wonder the US screen talent has moved to television.

I have little time for snarky and shallow reviewing, but I wouldn't dream of calling for it to banned. What it ought to provoke is argument. And a little friction is a good thing: there will always be discomfort in presuming to comment on others' work. There will always be some who take serious exception, just as there are those who take it with grace, as part of the risk of putting work out in public. With Octavio Paz, I think that criticism is what creates a culture. Bunbury's story is a salutory warning of what happens when the balance goes out of whack. As Primo Levi said in another age, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And yeah, I'm proud to be old fashioned.


Anonymous said...

I read “Crimes Against Humanity” by Geoffrey Robertson earlier this year, and was surprised to learn some interesting information about the Red Cross, which I shall try to quote with as much brevity as possible here: (This is in reference to the Geneva Convention of 1949)

“Convention III (treatment of prisoners-of-war)...adopt[s] an enforcement mechanism through the agency of ‘protecting powers’... This was an unworkable idea...and has generally been ignored... More helpful work on the ground has been done by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose role is written into the Conventions... However, the Red Cross, to justify this privilege, makes a fetish of its commitment to confidentiality, both in observations within war zones and in its dealing with governments and militias. Its present ethics of humanitarian intervention (which are not shared by other aid agencies) require its workers to turn a blind eye to human rights violations, in the belief that their silence is the price of being invited back, or into the next war zone. It has declined for this reason to allow its employees, and even former employees, to give evidence to the Hague and Arusha Tribunals, which have upheld this absolute privilege against testifying although it deprives them of valuable first-hand accounts of atrocities and reliable evidence against those responsible.”

And to sum up the next 500 words: the ICRC always tells commanders of atrocities being committed, but the commanders do not have to do anything, as only they and the ICRC know about these acts, and the commanders know that the ICRC won’t say anything publicly, or give evidence at any trials.

I don’t have anything else particularly intelligent to add – I just thought there were some interesting parallels between the two situations.

And no, I’m not trying to call journalists war criminals. Publicists...maybe. (Joking.)

Alison Croggon said...

Er... not quite sure of the connection there, EP. (Was it quoting Primo Levi? Although he did speak about the small things mattering). The Red Cross's policy is well known - although they did break their policy to speak out about US abuses in Abu Ghraib, as I recall.

Anonymous said...

Not to worry - my mind often makes what can only be described as rather "creative" leaps between topics! The connection was supposed to be the whole "we won't condemn (or criticise) your prison (or movie) in case you don't invite us back again (or give us more interviews)" (in reference to what Ms. Bunbury was writing about), though perhaps it was too tenuous a link. (It wouldn't be the first time!) And as for the quote - it was from the book I mentioned.