Feature: Time to include a £ declaration alongside the star rating?

Openness. Honesty. Transparency. It sounds like a political manifesto mantra but as the industry increasingly comes under public scrutiny for value for money how open and honest should we be?

I’m not talking about dodgy deals here or financial mismanagement but wonder how honest, open and transparent our arts coverage is?

There have been many debates over the years on the subject of objectivity versus subjectivity from theatre critics but is it always down to the critic to make those decisions or are other factors at play behind the scenes?

When a reader logs on to a site or opens a publication they expect an impartial view but are commercial decisions impacting that review? Although many altruistic reasons may be given around news gathering and reporting, for many organisations the bottom line is sadly financial, driven by circulation and advertising revenue.

A disclaimer before we go any further. Accurate information on the subject is difficult to get– deemed as ‘commercially sensitive’ or based on anecdotal or ‘off the record’ conversations that are hard to corroborate but it seems that there is some cause for concern.

There are some alarming stories circulating out there about pressure from the commercial sector to influence the editorial direction of reviews:
A theatre company told that a publication couldn’t send anyone to review their show unless they bought advertising in the publication
A theatre critic who talks of instructions from their editor only to write glowing reviews for ‘commercial considerations’
A separate critic who recounts negative reviews not being published for fear of upsetting advertisers
A venue who threatened to withdraw their advertising unless a less than glowing review was removed
These of course may be isolated incidents and I’m not suggesting that the majority of arts coverage is anything but impartial but if we lose the trust of our readership what is the value in covering the arts?

This is a subject with no easy answers – publications need a constant feed of stories and articles to survive and arts organisations need the exposure that arts coverage brings but for the consumer is it always clear that the words in front of them is nearer an ‘advertorial’ rather than a purely objective review.

With some publications publishing glowing reviews for every single production they cover, can these be called reviews or just another form of advert? Paid for features carry the wording ‘Advertising Feature’ should reviews also declare any advertising spend the production has with the organisation concerned?

As pressures on advertising revenue grows there is more of a temptation to allow commercial to influence the editorial, but as those same pressures also tighten consumer spending what are the long term impacts on both ticket sales and publication sales if audiences begin to feel they can’t rely on a review to aide their ticket buying choices? Do we need a £ advertising income rating alongside the star ratings

Originally written for Arts Professional Magazine

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