Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Arts Journalism and "The Arts": Part 1.

It’s good to see that the Arts Council is weighing in on the axing of Rattlebag, but why is it bothering? Yesterday’s statement from Mary Cloake, the Arts Council director, is a worthy one, but it is unlikely to make any real impact. RTÉ, remember, is not primarily funded by the Arts Council, but by taxpayers’ money in another guise – the licence fee. It funds some strands of the arts – certain arts documentary strands, for example – in conjunction with the Arts Council, but I believe it’s backing away from those collaborations also, leaving most of the funding to the Council and to the Irish Film Board. So what does it have to fear from Mary Cloake? I can’t help suspecting that the meeting Cloake has called with Cathal Goan, the director general of RTÉ, is just a token gesture. The Arts Council has been making a serious effort to place its finger more firmly on the pulse of the Irish arts scene in the last couple of years, and that has yielded some good results, but surely Cloake and the Council must be aware that they can have make no real inroads here? Is the statement, then, little more than a good PR move on the part of the Arts Council as it goes about firming up its new, more positive image in the arts scene?

Cloake’s call for an arts correspondent in the RTÉ newsroom is also very worthy. And I’m not using the word “worthy” in a snide way here, in the way it has been employed, over the past fortnight or so, by commentators only too happy to see the back of Rattlebag and the Mystery Train. I think it would be great to see an arts correspondent in RTÉ. But I also think it would be great to see an arts correspondent in the Irish Times. Or in any one of the broadsheet newspapers published in Ireland. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that any of those publications have a dedicated arts correspondent. They have theatre critics, and they have literary correspondents, and visual arts correspondents, but believe me, each of those people have enough to do in covering their own beat without also having to write news and analysis on the other side of the arts – problems in the Arts Council, for example, should they arise, or at the Abbey or the Gate, not to mention at other arts venues in the country. Issues of funding, issues of space and representation and sheer survival. Will the fact that another fine space for the arts in Dublin, Pallas Studios, has just been forced to close both its gallery and its studio space, make the news in any form tomorrow? If that was a sports ground or an educational space, would it make the news? More likely in the former case than in the latter, certainly, but I think that it would. This is the kind of work an arts correspondent would do – not the interviews with big authors, upcoming directors, new bands, not the theatre or album reviews, not the full-page features on the new exhibition at IMMA or the RHA. All of that work should be part of the output of a national media outlet, but so, too, should the kind of arts journalism which calls for reportage and investigative work. Which calls for a lot of off-the-record phone calls, which calls for a fat book of contacts and an ability to get the inside track on what’s going on in the arts. And which requires, above all, a resistance to wade through the press releases and PR spin which guides way too much of arts coverage today. To write journalism, that is. Not something barely distinguishable from free publicity.

But why is this kind of arts journalism needed? What’s going on in the arts?

Well, what’s likely, at any one time, to be going on in any industry? And likely to be going on in any industry which is largely publicly funded? News. Hard news. Usually, in the current climate, bad news. Job cuts. Funding cuts. Management mess-ups. Questionable uses of public money. Misuses of public money. Misplacement of public money. Rows. Sackings. Scandals. Cover-ups. Crises. Closures. Secrets and lies. Back-stabbing. Bullying. Chauvinism. Favouritism. People living on half the minimum wage and waiting three years to get paid. People bringing venues and companies and councils to their knees and taking three years to get fired. Or get lost.

Hard news like this doesn’t just happen in the Abbey once every ten years, and provoke a flurry of national coverage, and then go quietly away with the help of a new PR manager and a bail-out from the Government. There are a lot more arts outlets than the Abbey in Ireland, and a lot more artists besides Bono and Robert Ballagh, and between them they supply enough news to keep an arts correspondent busy every day. Some people might find that kind of journalism boring, might deem it unnecessary, but you know what? I don’t care. I find sports journalism, business journalism, and property journalism and motor journalism, and health journalism, boring, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who don’t share my feeling on that, and so I agree that reports on footballers and cars and hernias and houses and stocks and shares should be given a fair amount of space in a daily newspaper. What I would have a problem with would be a situation in which the newspaper or a radio station gave a lot of space or air time to interviews with footballers and business leaders and estate agents and…um, car people…in which those people could get their views, and their products, across to readers or listeners, and yet didn’t think it important to devote the same amount of space or air time to stories about (rather than interviews with) those footballers or business leaders, etc. News stories or opinion pieces. Commentary. Analysis. Reports – not just reviews. I’d be disturbed if a newspaper or radio station sat around waiting for another Elan scandal before giving space to business news. Or waited for another Saipan episode before writing a sports news story. The situation is not quite that extreme where the arts are concerned, but whole swathes of stories go unreported – and, as a result, unsatisfactory situations go on unexposed – because there’s nobody to report on them, to devote their time to finding those stories and covering them in depth and with the kind of expertise that only a correspondent dedicated to a particular area can achieve. And afford. If you’re writing three interviews, two reviews, two features, etc, etc, per week, you don’t have time, also, to be a newshound. It’s a full-time job. And unfortunately, Arts Council intervention or no, it’s going to be a long time before it’s going to be filled in Ireland.

(And no, it’s not a job that I want. But I know a lot of journalists who would do it very well.)

1 comment:

fred h said...

much of the debate on media in ireland tends to focus on single issues - the reporting of this story, the non-reporting of that story etc etc - which is a pretty handy way to divide the audience ("sure i didn't like that anyway!"). possibly what's needed is a more all-encompassing debate on the role (and rule) of the media in ireland today. sites like http://www.mediaforum.ie are helping that but until they and other bloggers actually break out of the ghetto and get mentioned in the "real" media, it's like pissing into the wind.