The Evil Imp

Burn It Down

The central tenet of journalism is to report the facts and leave the opinions at the door, unless you’re writing an opinion piece that is but no matter what, the facts are still a journalist’s best friend.

Here in TheLab™ we harangue Arts Council England probably more than every other arts publication/journalist in the country but we do it using factual information to inform our thinking and our writing.

Step forward The Spectator, the right wing gas bag manufacturer and all round waste of space on the internet. Please understand that we say that with love (really? Ed!)

On October 21st a blog post was published by a writer called Mira Bar-Hillel entitled “The Arts Council’s culture of secrecy puts government departments to shame”.

Within this piece Ms Bar-Hillel attempts to paint the funding monolith as machiavellian super-villains gleefully wasting public money as they stroke a long haired white cat with a menacing smirk stretched out across their collective face.

At the core of the piece is an allegation made by one Richard Ingrams concerning a £15,000 funding application to Grants for the Arts;

“One of these grants, however, is now undermining the ACE’s determination to remain above scrutiny. In May, Richard Ingrams, then founding editor of The Oldie magazine, wrote a detailed letter to the Arts Council England informing them that a grant of £15,000 it awarded Oldie publisher James Pembroke for the Soho Literary Festival was based on an application form which was, er, economical with the truth.

Contrary to what the application stated, the festival was not a worthy if struggling literary event but an integral part of The Oldie itself, a profitable dividend-paying company. The grant application was peppered with little white lies.”

While it is adorable that Ms Bar-Hillel thinks a £15,000 GFA award will be ACE’s undoing let us dig deeper.

The first problem we have is that Ms Bar-Hillel does not say what any of these “little white lies” are in the piece. Even a cursory run down of the most egregious allegations would be demanded by any editor worth their salt but not, evidently, at The Spectator.

The most we could dig up on the issue was the Press Gazette reporting on June 10 this year that quoted Private Eye saying;

“…Ingrams was concerned that Pembroke’s application to the Arts Council contravened the body’s rules and that, as the public face of the magazine, this would lead to bad publicity for him.”

and this;

“This week’s edition said Ingrams was concerned that the application contained misleading statements, including that the Soho Literary Festival was an “arts organisation”. In fact, it said, the festival is run by Oldie Publications.”

and this;

“The Eye reported that Ingrams was concerned that the money was supposed to go towards a “new marketing executive salary”, when actually it went towards paying the salary of the magazine’s exisiting editorial assistant, who organises the festival as part of their job.”

On the face of it the problems with the application seems to be part personal and part semantic. You don’t have to be an “arts organisation” to apply for GFA funding, it’s an open process, you just need an idea and a bit of luck. ACE doesn’t do a background check to make sure you have your “I’m An Artist” license.

The funding monolith is, apparently, investigating these claims but as yet they have not called in a SWAT team to take down James Pembroke and haul him off to the local gulag for re-education.


As mentioned in the piece, Grants for the Arts, especially at the £15,000 or lower level is an honour system. You tell the truth on the application or ACE can either reject it or ask for the money to be returned if it’s successful.

Lying on the application form, if that’s what happened in this case, is on the applicant, not ACE.

If you wanted to run detailed oversight on every single small GFA grant issued then you would need to employ a lot more staff to do it. This, in turn, would make ACE’s operation costs larger than they are but the slobbering idealists in the coalition government demanded they cut their running costs.

You can’t have it both ways. Either the major arts funding body in England has the money to run detailed oversight on every single application or you accept the fact that some small grant applications might contain, to put it charitably, exaggerations.

It currently takes 6 weeks for a grant application of £15,000 or less to be processed. We shudder to think how long it would take if ACE was running FBI like background check on every single application.

Small Storms in Giant Tea Cups

The story concerning the £15,00 grant is of secondary importance however because the entire post is little more than shoddy take down piece. Fodder for the rabid, right wing readership who pointedly object to public money being used on anything they don’t personally approve of.

We know this because Ms Bar-Hillel makes several glaring mistakes when referring to the Big Bad and the money they distribute.

For example, she claims that ACE;

“… does publishes (sic) a spreadsheet of the organisations which receive between £40,000 and £2.5 million a year, but beyond that – nothing.”

This is demonstrably false, the reason we know this is because that spreadsheet is linked at the bottom of this article and contains details of every single NPO funding recipient all the way up to the £24.7Million of funding given to the Royal Opera House.

What about Grants for the Arts? The DCMS website contains details of every successful GFA grant ever awarded since the National Lottery began. Again, this includes grants for £26 (no joke) to the more than £70Million given to the Royal Opera House to rebuild their theatre in the 1990s.

ACE also publishes detailed spreadsheets.

Want to now how much money the funding monolith has awarded to TheSpace over the next three years? We did, it’s more than £8Million and all we had to do was ask them.

There are too many times when ACE is less than forthcoming with the real numbers but for the most part it’s just senior management bungling the communication strategy and the infuriating inability to implement simple databases as we pointed out in January for our piece ‘Dark Money‘.

Ms Bar-Hillel also refers to GFA grants as “tax payers” money which they are not. GFA money comes from the lottery, still public money for sure but very different from state funding derived from taxation. Writers like Ms Bar-Hillel know this (or maybe she doesn’t! Ed!) but phrases like “tax payers” and “hard working tax payers” stoke the fires burning within their readership.


As we have written repeatedly in this very tome Arts Council England is a somewhat dysfunctional organisation. Too many of the larger grants they give out appear to have been awarded with little forethought to the wider context of arts provision in England.

Journalists, artists and the general public need to be on their case every day demanding answers and trying to make the funding monolith learn from its mistakes.

Absolutists like the writers in The Spectator and their commentariat however just want to burn everything down and will latch onto any little thing they can to prove their point as evidenced by Ms Bar-Hillel’s final quote;

“Harry S. Truman once said that ‘Art is parasitic on life, just as criticism is parasitic on art.’ When it comes to the ACE, given its conduct in times of austerity, I’m afraid the epithet ‘parasite’ rings true to me.”

The GFA application process, especially for grants £15,000 and under, is very much an honour system. You are expected to tell the truth and if you don’t, then ACE can ask for the money back. Ms Bar-Hillel’s piece could have been a detailed look at the GFA funding process and how any problems could be fixed to make the application process better and fairer.

As we said though, The Spectator and their ilk just want to watch anything publicly funded burn.

Arts Council England is about to get a new CEO and as we wrote in ‘Fire Breathing Dragons‘ that person needs to bring in some very simple progressive changes because change is what’s needed.

The arts needs a better Arts Council and the world needs less frothing at the mouth vitriol about “getting a proper job”.

ACE National NPO Portfolio 2015-2018
[ The Spectator ]