On may 11th Alistair Spalding the AD of Sadler's Wells Theatre, quoted in the Guardian newspaper, uttered a couple of sentences that have, over the last few weeks, exposed just how inept large scale arts organisations are at answering simple questions.
From a journalistic perspective it's the gift that keeps on giving. Nothing is more likely to put the bit firmly between an intrepid reporters teeth than well paid officials in public organisations that won't answer direct questions.
"It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field," said Spalding. "It's not that I don't want to commission them."
That's the quote that's causing the trouble and it is where the games begin.
The first thing you do when reading a quote like that is carry out some due diligence. If the person never said it or was taken massively out of context then you need to verify that (it's not very likely though and since no lawsuits have been filed, that we know of, and the article is still online, then the chances are Mr Spalding did say those words). Easy enough to verify though, a quick call to Sadler's Wells press office should sort that out, after all they have five press officers.
The fun and games begin immeadiatley because first of all the press office say they don't know where Mr Spalding is, somewhere in Europe, they're not sure where. His PA has a travel schedule but Sadler's Wells is apparently so cavernous they can't find his PA either.
After much back and forth we leave some questions with them and they promise to get back to us. After a few days, nothing but silence. We call back;
"Oh, we thought you had lost interest when you didn't call back", they say.
"But you said you would let us know when you found Mr Spalding and put the questions to him", we say.
"No we didn't!", they say.
We tell them we have not lost interest and if they wouldn't mind could they get him to answer the questions we have already left? They agree. At least they know where he is now so that's something. He's in Spain (at least he was when the telephone conversation took place), watching some work. They won't tell us what work he's watching though. Spooky!
In the meantime you push on and try to get some comments from ACE. Why ACE you ask? Well Sadler's Wells is funded by ACE so when one of their clients goes off the reservation you ask them what they think. This stuff isn't rocket science you know.
The go-to person at ACE, because Sadler's Wells is a dance venue and the comment was made about female dance makers, is Janet Archer, Director of National Dance Strategy.
You don't get put through to Ms Archer directly though because the press flacks are in the way. They're called flacks for a reason, it's their job to get in the way. Let the games continue!
Unlike Sadler's Wells they keep better track of their senior people. Ms Archer is in back-to-back meetings all day, somewhere in Swindon. We still can't speak to her though, all those meetings you understand, so can we leave the questions with the flacks and they'll get back to us?
Whenever you hear that, and it's all to common these days, you know the flacks are the ones writing the answers. The intended target is just going to sign off on the comments (if that), perhaps editing a word or two. We know this for sure because ACE admitted it. We should really play poker with these guys. If only we knew how to play poker.
The official response from ACE is banal, irrelevant to the questions asked and of course, we can't follow up.
Time to play the trump card with ACE, request an on-camera interview with Ms Archer. Now that's sneaky. You can bluster all you like but when you're in front of a camera there's nowhere to hide. Straight questions, straight answers, nice and simple.
Little did we know it was time to descend into the twilight zone.
Our first phone call is pleasant enough. Can we have an interview on camera we ask? The person on the other end of the phone says ACE will look into it. Then nothing for a few days. We call back, explain we're calling about the interview with Ms Archer. They're still looking into it.
"What's the interview about?" They ask.
"It's about Mr Spaldings comments, ACE's lack of a coherent response and general ACE funding policy with regard to dance" (may as well get some more stuff in there while the camera is rolling).
Yes, but what are the questions? They ask.
We ponder that question in silence for a moment. Article19 then made it perfectly clear that under no circumstances would we hand over the questions prior to an interview taking place. Sure we can give an overview, which we had already done over the phone, but no way were the press flacks going to get the questions.
ACE fired back asserting that all journalist they deal with are more than happy to hand over the questions "so the interviewee can be prepared". We used both the [London] Times and The Guardian as examples. ACE stuck to its guns and said, sure they do!
Having given them a chance to take that back because a quick call to the Guardian would reveal the truth ACE's press flacks didn't back down. So, we call the Guardian, several times, and eventually speak to their press office (yes, even newspapers have a press office) and they say, no way that's a standard agreement. It would take a pretty exceptional set of circumstances to hand over questions prior to an interview they tell us.
Just for a bit of balance we give the editorial standards people at BBC News a quick call to see what their position is on handing over questions before an interview.
No way they say, that type of thing, "it's in the blood".
This particular episode of what has become a complete farce culminated today in yet another call to ACE's press office to follow up on whether or not they would give us the interview. Initially they went the same route as Sadler's Wells and thought this whole thing was old news and they didn't want to talk about it anymore. They're trying to run out the clock.
When Article19 pointed out that it was only 3 weeks ago and let's face it not a lot happens day to day in the world of dance and we still wanted the interview they changed tack.
ACE insisted that Article19 had agreed to send in the questions but we had failed to do so. Hang on, we responded, we did nothing of the sort. Let's face it, why would we spend hours getting in touch with the right person at the Guardian to get an on the record response to ACE's claims if we were going to hand over the questions?
The press office then stuck to their original claim that journalists always hand over questions before interviews. The Guardian says they don't (that was the example Article19 provided). ACE's press office then seemed to suggest that the Guardian was out of order for funneling their responses through a press office which is exactly what ACE do. That was a weird moment for sure.
When asked to provide the names of any journalist that had done what the ACE press office was suggesting they declined to do so.
Digging around a little on the Guardian website reveals just one interview with an ACE staff member over the last six months. The interview was with, then chairman, Christopher Frayling. Beyond the odd potted quote or six ACE probably doesn't get a lot of requests for interviews with their staff members.
The phone call with ACE ended with the press office putting the phone down on us. They said we were being mean, we disagreed.
Meanwhile, back on Walton's Mountain, Sadler's Wells was to be found still searching for its wayward Commander in Chief. Yet another phone call resulted in yet another person answering the phone. The person we needed to speak with was in a meeting (what is it with the arts and all these bloody meetings?)
We did get a response eventually, via email (the press flacks weapon of choice). Mr Spalding has our questions, the wheels keep turning! After 23 days we are still no further forward.
Here in TheLab™ we've come to the conclusion that these folks are just not used to anybody pressing an issue with them and repeating the same questions they have yet to answer. ACE, Sadler's Wells et al are playing the game but they don't seem to understand the rules.
Playing dumb or refusing to give interviews just makes you look guilty, even if you haven't done anything wrong. Words and actions count, but it's perception that's gonna kill you in the end.
All we can say to ACE and Sadler's Wells is this. If you think we're being harsh, just thank your lucky stars you're not in front of Jeremy Paxman (seen below squeezing William Hague MP until he almost bursts). We'll bet you all the money in our pocket that Mr Paxman didn't hand over the questions before the interview, and we'll bet even more money that Mr Hague didn't ask for them.