The atrium at the British Museum. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Neil MacGregor, Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hytner: exeunt stage right

Three titans of British culture are stepping down this year. Mark Lawson looks at their legacy – and the space they’ll leave behind.

It is an ancient rule of journalism that, while two instances of something are a coincidence, three constitute a trend. So the departures of high-profile directors of leading British artistic institutions are now officially trending, following the announcement by Neil MacGregor at the British Museum that he will follow Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre and Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre by leaving office this year.

As the three men all took up their posts between 2002-4, their incumbencies have overlapped for a decade and all faced a very similar challenge: how to attract larger and broader audiences at a time when, in the case of Hytner and MacGregor, their public funding was diminishing in real terms and, for Spacey, was non-existent: the Old Vic, which he took over after a series of unsuccessful occupancies by various companies, receives no direct Arts Council grant.

With a strategy that will surely be taught on arts administration courses, MacGregor and Hytner fought for easier admission – free entry at the BM, the £10-£12 Travelex reduced ticket scheme at the NT – and took their wares to places they were not usually available: the British Museum toured and lent objects more and show-cased them through old and new media in the Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, while the National has beamed its shows (and those of other theatres) into cinemas around the UK and the world in the NT Live scheme.

Apart from access and out-reach, Hytner and MacGregor also became the public leaders of their sectors, making the case for museums and theatre in Whitehall and across broadcasting.

Spacey’s legacy is less tangible. A number of the shows he put on at the Vic – including the plays Cloaca and Resurrection Blues – were notorious stinkers and he was generally at his best there as an actor – in Richard III and Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow – rather than a director or administrator. In a way unwise for any company, he was himself the brand, although this focus brought advantages.

The loss of a planned major revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America would have been catastrophic for most repertory theatres but Spacey was able to fill the gap with a run of his sell-out one-man show Clarence Darrow. In a theatre without government funding, Spacey was, in effect, the Old Vic’s subsidy and it is his publicity and box office impact that the theatre will most miss, although he seems likely to return to the venue as a performer.

Although coming from very different backgrounds – in Glasgow, Manchester and New Jersey – MacGregor, Hytner and Spacey are, like most British cultural leaders of their generations, all men. And it will be noted that Hytner and Spacey have also been replaced by blokes: Rufus Norris and Matthew Warchus.

Gender analysis of appointments is complicated by the fact that, if Marianne Elliott had made herself available for the National job, she would almost certainly have got it, ahead of Norris. And strong female candidates to replace Spacey – Josie Rourke and Vicky Featherstone – had already been installed at other venues, the Donmar and the Royal Court, before the Old Vic vacancy came up.

Even so, the British Museum board has an opportunity to break the apparent stone ceiling at the UK’s greatest cultural institutions and should surely look closely at the very talented Dr Maria Balshaw of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester among a list of contenders that will surely also look at directors across Europe and the US although it is possible that there might be some journalistic and political opposition to a building with such a nationally emblematic name being run by someone from abroad – an equivalent to the opposition that Sven-Goran Erikkson faced as the first foreign coach of the English football team.

In another footballing metaphor, some candidates to follow MacGregor might also fear becoming a David Moyes, the coach who failed horribly at Manchester United to replicate the long success achieved by Sir Alex Ferguson. Norris and Warchus, although having taken the National Theatre and Old Vic jobs, may also have reason to fear the parallel.

The only drawback to making a very successful appointment – as the boards of all three institutions did a decade or so ago – is the the difficulty of finding an equivalent successor.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.