Stress Test

by Neil Nisbet

There are many tasks that journalists must undertake during any given day but one of the most fundamental is conducting interviews.

Whether it’s discussing the nature of things with a dance maker or a dancer about their work and profession or haranguing a politician or bureaucrat about their policy decisions the interview is a fundamental part of obtaining, more often than not, hidden information.

Sans diligent questioning from an inquiring mind such information may otherwise not come to light.

A journalist that never speaks to anyone is not a very good journalist at all. How can you ever understand something if you never speak to anyone about things that, on close inspection, don’t make a whole lot of sense?

Due diligence is how we all know that the press are writing from a position of informed opinion and not just howling at the moon as many have accused this writer and this publication of in the past and near present.

Howling at the Moon

The problems begin when you actually try and obtain an interview. More often than not getting a choreographer or dancer to talk about their work is easy. You ask them, you sit down with them, often on-camera, they have little or no idea the questions you are going to ask them, and they discuss their work with you articulately and intelligently. It’s simple.

Not so when you approach Arts Council England however. Not since we interviewed former ACE North East CEO Andrew Dixon, chaperoned by his press officer, in 2005 have we been able to interview an ACE employee on camera about any of their, for want of a better word, schemes.

ACE’s most recent high profile scheme is the ‘Catalyst Arts’ project that, in theory, is going to solve all of the problems related to the government arts funding cuts using methods that don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Our piece ‘The Philanthropy Gambit’ covers these issues in great detail. That piece was written after the communications office at ACE in London had declined to give us an interview with a staffer. The reason they gave, at the time, was ‘Catalyst Arts’ had not been formally announced, we could have an interview when it was announced.

When the project was formally announced we waited a little and went back to ACE on October 28th and asked them once again for an interview to discuss the issues we had raised in ‘The Philanthropy Gambit’.

This time ACE declined because they said all of their staff were too busy and would be too busy until November 14th. On November 15th we contacted ACE one more time and requested an interview with a staff member with knowledge of ‘Catalyst Arts’ and, once again, we were rebuffed.

Same Old Song

The reasons given were, as the sub heading says, the same old song we’ve heard before.

ACE wanted to know the questions we would ask (we don’t do that), the issues we wanted to raise and why we wanted to raise those issues when ACE had made sure they had explained everything in their own documentation.

Leaving aside the fact that all of those things had been explained to ACE time and time again and the communications staff in London had actually read ‘The Philanthropy Gambit’ think a little more closely about the last reason they gave for not speaking on the record about ‘Catalyst Arts’.

ACE don’t think they need to answer questions about a major policy initiative because they have already told the general public everything the general public needs to know in their own documentation.

Don’t look now but ACE just became the United States of China.

They tell us what we need to know and how dare we, or anyone else for that matter, be so impertinent as to suggest they explain themselves further.


As media strategies go, refusing to do a simple interview is puzzling to say the least because there is no way for ACE to win.

Let’s look at this from ACE’s point of view.

If you don’t do an interview you look like you have no confidence in the scheme you are proposing. Lose!

If ACE thinks Article19 is irrelevant and not worth talking to then they look conceited and smug. Lose!

If you don’t do the interview because you think you have told everybody everything they need to know then you look smug, conceited and dictatorial. Lose!

If you consistently stall, give different reasons for not doing an interview and, ultimately, don’t do the interview, you look incompetent. Lose!

There is no way to win with this strategy. It’s the equivalent of a petulant five year old stamping his or her feet and screaming “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!”

On the other hand if you do an interview you make the organisation look open, confident, competent, professional and whatever else you need to be to inspire some kind of trust from the tens of thousands of people who depend on you and your policies for their livelihood.

Of course the interview might go badly and expose your £50Million scheme as having more holes in it than a thousand year old fishing net but that’s the price you pay for not living in China.

Sound The Alarm

It should be more than a little alarming if not downright terryfying to learn that when faced with a reasonable request for an interview ACE cannot provide a member of staff who can speak with both intelligence and authority on a policy that will ultimately cost £50Million.

The amount of preperation that would have gone into creating this kind of scheme would amount to many thousands of work hours, right?

Meetings and discussions with arts organisations large and small, policy experts, economic experts, communications experts, political experts and experts I can’t even think of. Endless discussions running into to the wee small hours fine tuning every little detail, considering every possible stumbling block.

All of these experts feeding their cumulative experience into the hive mind of ACE, honing their knowledge of philanthropic giving to a razor sharp point.

This is of course pure speculation on my part.

Also, given that the member of staff (whom at this point is entirely fictional) would have had several months to prepare for the interview, thanks to ACE repeatedly stalling, talking about ‘Catalyst Arts’ should, in theory, be easy.

So their decision to hide under a rock is only more damning.

Arts Council England holds the cultural well being of this country in its metaphorical hands and you want those hands to belong to the best and the brightest.

The best and the brightest would be able to handle any question you throw at them about any ACE policy and do it at the drop of a hat.

Amatuers on the other hand will stumble, stammer and stall for all they are worth because deep down they know they really don’t have anything to say.

‘Catalyst Arts’ won’t stand up to a stress test and they know it.