In the hot seat: Bazalgette's focus is now on persuading business to invest more in the arts. Photo: Richard Saker/Contour/Getty Images.
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Peter Bazalgette: “Subsidy? It’s a wet, tedious , passive word. I don’t use it”

A year ago, Peter Bazalgette, the TV entrepreneur responsible for <em>Big Brother</em>, was put in charge of the £400m-a-year Arts Council England. Is he spending the funds wisely?

When, in late 2012, it was announced that Peter Bazalgette – known to all and sundry as “Baz” – was to succeed Liz Forgan as chairman of Arts Council England, the news was not universally welcomed. A former UK boss of the television company Endemol, Bazalgette was responsible for a slew of reality TV programmes that included Big Brother and Deal or No Deal and thus, in the eyes of many, he was to blame for turning the minds of the nation’s viewers to pap. No matter that Big Brother was initially an exercise in sociological television; its subsequent slump towards (and beyond) the lowest common denominator won him some vocal enemies. He has been roundly abused by, among others, Quentin Letts, Victor Lewis-Smith and, inevitably, the poor man’s Peter Ustinov, Stephen Fry. (Fry complained that Bazalgette was undoing the work of his great-great-grandfather Joseph – the Victorian engineer responsible for London’s sewerage system – by pumping shit back into our homes.)

Bazalgette, who writes a newspaper food column, once said that Marmite was a personal favourite; like that viscous spread, he has proved divisive. His appointment to the Arts Council post was not helped by the organisation’s reputation for ineffectualness and doling out public money to experimental theatre companies and contemporary dance groups. Whatever his services to dumbing down, however, Bazalgette has also been a long-standing and committed cultural advocate. He is an experienced fundraiser and a former chair of English National Opera and was a non-executive director of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – a public service ethos that reflects that of his great-great-grandfather.

Having begun his four-year term on 1 February 2013, Bazalgette is now celebrating the end of his first year at “Ace” (as it is wincingly known). When we meet, I ask him if he was shaken by the hostility that his appointment attracted. “What attacks?” is his reflexive response. When I list them, he notes drily: “It’s not the first time Quentin Letts has had a go at me. But this is not about me.” Surely, I suggest, that’s exactly what it is about. “Look,” he says. “I’ve spent 30 years encouraging creativity and I’m not going to back off now.”

Bazalgette has had to negotiate a tricky start. He was met by funding cuts that lopped 30 per cent off Ace’s government settlement over four years and a cull that reduced its staff from more than 500 to 400. Although these changes were put in process by his predecessor, Bazalgette has had to contend with this shrunken organisation. He is as happy as he can be with what has been achieved: “Running costs now amount to 3 per cent of our budget rather than 10 per cent and when we were faced with the latest Spending Review, the government wanted to cut us by a further 10 per cent but we managed to get that down to 5 per cent.” It has left him in the curious position of “celebrating bad news”.

Money is Ace’s business. It hands out some £400m a year; £300m to about 700 national portfolio organisations (NPOs) – largely established arts organisations from the Academy of Ancient Music and the Nottingham Playhouse to the Liverpool Biennial and the Bristol Old Vic – as well as a pot of £45m for museums and £50m for Ace’s dedicated music education hubs. The dependence of arts organisations on Ace is something Bazalgette wants reduced: “Ten years ago, the NPOs relied on Ace for 50 per cent of their funding. Now, it’s closer to 30 per cent.”

Central funding, however, will always be necessary and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “We have had a mixed economy for a century,” says Bazalgette. “The arts are part of that. Public funding has given us a world-class cultural scene. Just compare us to Paris, Rome or even New York. The arts are cheap – 14 pence a week per taxpayer goes to the arts, a third of what the French spend. It’s a tiny sum of money.” But the subsidy is shrinking. “I don’t use the word ‘subsidy’. It’s a wet, tedious word. I use ‘investment’. ‘Subsidy’ sounds so passive.”

His focus is now on persuading business to “invest” in the arts more. But why should it? If the arts are vital for the health of society, shouldn’t the government pick up the bill, just as it does for health and education? “The holistic case for investment in the arts starts with the intrinsic value of culture,” he says.

No doubt, but does business really believe that? “Well, it’s true shareholders don’t always like to see what could have been their dividends being spent on the arts,” he tells me, “but there are good reasons they should – altruism, a genuine marketing payback, fulfilling their own corporate social responsibility objectives ...” In the end, however, “There has to be a payback. There is no such thing as a motiveless gift.”

Business investment in the arts fell in the five years to 2011 but the latest figures (for 2011-2012) show a small rise, from £113.6m to £113.8m. Last month, Tate Modern made headlines with a multimillion-pound sponsorship deal with the South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai, which will support the Turbine Hall commissions for 11 years.

Perhaps, I suggest, arts organisations might attract more generous funding from businesses – and more interest from the public – if they focused on high-quality traditional forms, rather than some of the more recherché art that Ace encourages. “The public is not this single group of people. It’s made up of all sorts and there is an extraordinary appetite for the new and exciting. To feed it, you must invest in the future.”

Isn’t there something patronising about an arts cadre assuming it is good for the public – however amorphous – to be challenged? One of the roles of art is surely to offer comfort. “Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s public acceptance,” he counters. “Take Grayson Perry: he’s gone from frock-wearing potter to well-loved public figure. Turning the specialist into the mainstream is a key part of Ace’s duty. Some won’t work but others will.” He cites the example of Danny Boyle, who started out at the Royal Court Theatre.

But for every Danny Boyle, there is a failure, such as the £9.5m Arc arts centre in Stockton-on-Tees, which had to be bailed out by Ace. Aren’t such cases body blows? “‘Body blow’ is putting it too strongly,” says Bazalgette, before quickly going on to stress the roles of local authorities in arts funding. “Really enlightened ones, such as East Lindsey District Council, are actually increasing their arts spending because they know of the benefits it can bring.” East Lindsey, which includes Skegness, bumped up its funding from £50,000 to £350,000. This made it possible to put up a screen on Skegness beach for live feeds from Garsington Opera, although its popularity, Bazalgette concedes, might have had something to do with Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph being shown immediately beforehand.

There is nothing new about the message that the arts bring exponential economic benefits. Skegness is no exception: the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in West Yorkshire, for example, have been the catalysts for regeneration in their surrounding areas. The problem is getting both councils and the public not simply to understand that art can attract money (they already do) but to believe it instinctively – and that, Bazalgette concedes, is “a challenge”.

Bazalgette’s first year at Ace has been busy. “I’ve measured out my life in railway carriages,” he says. “I’ve criss-crossed the country.” If you want to see where he’s been, he suggests you look at his Twitter feed. He has long been an arts consumer: “Before this, I was a regular attender of opera, theatre and classical music and a bit more irregular at ballet, the visual arts and literary events.” Now, it is a bit of everything – pressing the flesh, fact-finding, beating the arts drum.

What, I ask, is the art form he’s drawn to most instinctively? “You’re not getting me on that,” he says with a surprising degree of animation. Why not? Most people have a preferred art form but that doesn’t mean they can’t like others, too. After being pressed, he grudgingly concedes: “If I ’fessed up, I would say I look for ‘performance’ but I won’t go further than that. It’s like being asked if you have a favourite child and we don’t do that, do we?”

What we do is discuss the moral power of the arts, their ability to raise the individual and society, and so on. This may be a cliché, but it’s one that Bazalgette claims to believe in with a passion. “I spent eight years on the board of English National Opera. I wouldn’t have done that unless I believed in it.” When Endemol was sold in 2007, it fetched €3.2bn. At Ace, he earns £40,000 a year for two days work a week.

It can perhaps be read as a sign of qualified success that the chatter around Ace has died back and that the non-populist populist at its head is no longer attracting the opprobrium that greeted his appointment. It may irk Quentin Letts et al but if Ace were the Big Brother house, there is no sign that Bazalgette is in any danger of being voted out.

Michael Prodger is assistant editor of the New Statesman

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder