ACE & Special Interests


The recent internal review by Arts Council England (ACE) that led to the decision to uphold its own ruling on refusing access to detailed financial information about MJW Productions and Channel 4 Television illustrates that ACE is more concerned with protecting big name clients than it is in answering concerns about a funding and decision making process that is fatally flawed.

Almost six months ago Article19 made a Freedom of Information request to ACE asking them to supply all the information they held regarding the 4Dance television programme created by MJW for broadcast on Channel 4. Initially the funding quango refused to supply the material stating excessive financial cost.

When pressed further they revealed that the cost of retrieving the information was just £25 over the upper limit set by the act. When Article19 stated we would cover any additional cost they backtracked on the decision and supplied the information requested for free.

The information that was eventually released to us was severely limited in both scope and depth. It was revealed that MJW Productions had received £117,500 towards producing the show but curiously there was no detailed breakdown on how this money was spent.

Section 43

ACE cited a Section 43 exemption for this information. This exemption basically states that a public authority – in this case ACE – can withhold that information when revealing it may;

“..prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

The act does not state how the Information Commission determines that prejudice.

In a letter dated June 19th, Peter Hewitt – ACE ‘s Chief Executive – regarding the internal review of ACE ‘s decision, states that;

“ could also affect our ability to see and scrutinise budgets if production companies became reluctant to provide us with detailed budgetary information knowing this may become available to others.”

This statement is patently ridiculous because you simply cannot apply for funding from ACE without providing detailed budgets. The higher the cost of the project the more detailed the financial information becomes and the more oversight that is necessary. Companies that refused to supply such information would simply have their application rejected without any further consideration.

Had MJW received this money from a private source then they should expect full confidentiality because, after all, who ‘s business is it if companies or individuals wish to invest in a commercial enterprise?

This money did not come from a private source however and both MJW and Channel 4 were well aware of this prior to entering into agreements to produce the show. ACE ‘s money is your money and that any public organisation would suggest you have no right to know how it is spent is patronising and insulting in equal measure.

Third Rate Programming

It is not in the public interest to protect inept television production companies after they produce third rate television programmes which is just as well for ACE because they have little concern in protecting the public interest in such matters.

How do we know 4Dance was third rate?

Burying the show at 11.30pm on Channel 4, four days after Christmas, with no advance publicity is a pretty good indication that they have little faith in the content of the programme and its ability to attract viewers. ACE did put out a press release on December 22nd concerning the show and its broadcast date. Article19 would question just how many people or press outlets were paying attention at that late stage?

We don ‘t know about you, but here in the Lab all we can think about three days before Christmas is checking out the latest press releases from Arts Council England concerning dance television programmes.

Consider that decision for just one moment. ACE releases details of an arts television programme to be broadcast on a national network just seven days prior to airing in the midst of the busiest holiday period of the year!

It is an interesting aside that within ACE ‘s belated press release the director of dance, Jeanette Siddall is quoted as saying;

“The partnership with Channel 4 is one we place in high regard. It truly is a fantastic opportunity to commission innovative arts programmes for television that capture new audiences and contributes to the development of the artform.”

ACE held the partnership in such high regard that they, apparently, did not communicate one single time with anybody involved in producing the programme between February 2005 and the air date of the show itself. This is despite the funding agreement requiring ACE to ‘sign off ‘ the final edit before releasing the final £23,500 in funding.

There is no record of this ‘signing off ‘ in the information we requested.

If ACE did not communicate with MJW or Channel 4 for almost ten months regarding a high profile television programme broadcast on a national television station then they are simply incompetent.

If they did communicate with them during this period then why is there no record of it? Despite Article19 raising this issue in our complaint, Mr Hewitt provided no explanation in his response.

Detailed Oversight

Detailed public oversight is essential if commercial operators working with public funding bodies are to be kept inbounds. Without such scrutiny we are free to speculate, presumably, that MJW spent £40,000 making the show and the rest on purchasing a private yacht for the company directors. Since we simply have no idea where the money went – there was precious little evidence of it on the screen – we feel comfortable concocting our own wild ideas about how television production companies spend tens of thousands of pounds in funding from the public at large.

We very much doubt that the HMS MJW is currently sailing the Thames but it highlights the fundamental problem with ACE pandering to the whims of commercial companies instead of protecting the public’s interest in knowing just what is happening with their money.

ACE should be forthcoming and open about detailed budgetary information for the projects that are a glowing success and for those that are a miserable failure. The very purpose of a nationally broadcast television programme about dance can only have been about raising the profile of an art form that is utterly inept at placing itself front and center.

MJW know they failed at this, Channel 4 know that they failed and ACE certainly knows that they failed and failed miserably. The arts community and the public have a right to know just how much individuals and companies are profiting, if at all, from turning out the kind of misguided drivel 4Dance undoubtedly was.

ACE also has a duty to ensure that a full, wide-ranging assessment is made of this project. To date, no such review has taken place. But since they couldn ‘t find the email address of either MJW or Channel 4 for almost a year just how much confidence do you think we have they could conduct a successful review of this particular project?