No such thing as a free lunch?

Volatile personalities, free speech, free tickets and the free language almost obligatory when publishing online – look at me, please!! – tangled at the weekend when a dispute between Opera Australia – always a lightning rod! – and two arts commentators became public. Of course it became public. It seems there are no quiet corners in which private conversations leading to cooler heads and satisfactory resolutions can happen. Read on …

MANY years ago, when arts editor of The Australian, I was invited to Israel to experience aspects of its cultural life. I was part of a large group of journalists from around the world, which was fascinating in itself. There was a young Turkish woman who had never before met a Greek person (the two got on superbly) and a worldly Chinese man whose irreverence on matters political was refreshing and who, if I recall correctly, spoke Arabic. There was the very junior reporter – possibly the Turkish woman – who had to ask at the Jerusalem memorial Yad Vashem what the Holocaust was (she was treated very kindly).

Then there was a representative of The New York Times, who stood out for another reason: at every point at which money had been spent on our group, he required an estimation of what his portion of the cost would have been, even at the most insignificant food stall. His company would pay. The separation of the reporter and the reported-upon was absolute.

The New York Times doesn’t, however, pay for everything. According to its code of ethics, reviewers of “artistic performances” may accept “the press passes or tickets customarily made available”. However, editors or other staff members may not.

So, even the mighty NYT can’t cover the cost of its reviewers’ tickets. Can’t, or won’t. Every news organisation has budget priorities and it appears that in New York, as here, the taking of a free ticket is an acceptable part of doing business. Or – as is the case in Australia – more than one ticket.

Not only is it customary for reviewers here to accept tickets – so do senior managers, editors and writers, not necessarily all of them directly involved in the organisation’s cultural coverage. In the good old days arts organisations’ largesse was sometimes extended to administrative staff. So what? It’s always been this way.

In other words, there is an entrenched and rather touching belief on our part that disinterested media coverage plus freebies doesn’t equal oxymoron. Although it is a far from satisfactory state of affairs the system continues because it is mutually beneficial. Mostly. We media types scarcely think about the fact that, almost always, reviewers are given not one but two tickets so they can bring a friend along to work, and that drinks are almost always laid on at the premiere. What could be regarded as career-ending inducements in other fields of endeavour are part of the landscape. They don’t stop us from writing a swingeing review if we see fit. We trust ourselves, of course we do. It is insulting to suggest anything else. (Which does raise the matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but let’s move on …)

The situation is scarcely remarked upon unless, as happened at the weekend, something happens to disturb the status quo. There was a flare-up involving Opera Australia and the withdrawal of complimentary tickets to writer Diana Simmonds, who has been accustomed to being invited to Sydney performances. She has recently been highly critical about OA on her website. This brought to light a communication between a contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald, Harriet Cunningham, and OA. On December 8 Cunningham wrote an interesting piece of commentary for crikey.com.au’s Daily Review that bore the heading: Why I’m not going to the opera next year. Cunningham also, it appears, is now off the free list.

Not surprisingly, glee erupted on Twitter, and also not surprisingly the argument was essentially that it’s not about the free tickets, it’s about free speech. This is disingenuous. It is, in fact, very much about the free tickets, and about free speech, and about the fact that we yoke the two together.

By the way, OA wasn’t objecting to reviews in this instance. It got hot under the collar about commentary that criticised the company’s direction rather than the merits of a specific production, although a report online in the SMH on Saturday conflated the two. I think it’s important to use language very precisely in these situations.

The word ‘’ban” was bandied about but of course Simmonds and Cunningham are still perfectly free to go to the opera and write what they like about it, just not on OA’s dime. If the SMH needs Cunningham to review OA from time to time (she is the second-string opera critic), it will undoubtedly pony up for a ticket. Fairfax can probably still afford that much. Cunningham is a fine critic who would review fairly what she saw no matter who paid for the seat. (She Tweeted that she would indeed go to the opera no matter what, loving it as she does.)

In the case of Simmonds, she has long written about cultural matters for a variety of mainstream publications. Now she mostly edits and writes for an online site, Stagenoise.com, reviewing and commenting. Could she afford to buy a ticket to every performance she wished to review? I don’t know. Theoretically she can still go, and if her recent attendance at The Magic Flute is a guide she has friends who are happy to take her as their guest. If all else fails there are seats to be bought from $44 (restricted view).

Is it OA’s responsibility to ensure Simmonds, and by extension anyone with a history of arts journalism, can see every opera it stages and they want to see? That’s the box of worms we peer into in this world of proliferating online arts sites . By what right do any of us get on to – and stay on – that wondrous free list?

In the mainstream media world – and who knows how much longer that will survive – there are arts editors between the critic and the organisation to do the selecting. In the age of blogging it’s increasingly common for writers to publish material on cultural matters for no pay, with no commercial backing and with no heavyweight media organisation to exert some muscle for them – or to pay for a ticket if they fall foul of an artistic director. And while it would be pleasant to think companies have nothing but the greater cultural good of the nation in mind, pragmatism would suggest they also want to sell tickets and stay in business, and that they see positive media coverage as part of the deal.

The situation is made murkier by that fact that many (most) critics – including myself – have written advance articles in praise of forthcoming attractions or have undertaken corporate work on behalf of the relevant organisation. I don’t accept commissions about work I’m going to review, but I’m very aware of the conflict nevertheless and of the fine line being drawn. Caesar’s wife and all that.

It’s all very well to cite the maxim attributed to George Orwell that journalism is what people don’t want to see printed; all the rest is advertising. If you take that line, most of us working in this little pond are paid-up members of the arts advertising business. Organisations can’t get enough of these inevitably positive pre-show pieces and freelance writers have to make a living, but we also need to be clear-eyed about the circumstances and the potential for lines to become quite blurred.

OA has its knickers in a twist about giving tickets to people who have stated strong objections to its current direction. Mostly, though, I suspect OA, and specifically its artistic director Lyndon Terracini, object to the tone of the commentary. Simmonds, and to a lesser extent Cunningham, used the robust and colourful language that is the lingua franca of the online environment. It’s more direct and personal – more likely to sting? – than we are used to historically. The language of the mainstream media is still to a large degree more formal, mediated by a greater number (albeit diminishing) number of editors, sub-editors and lawyers.

Possibly OA inferred that poor reviews of upcoming productions would necessarily follow the commentary and reckoned it’s buggered if it’s going to facilitate that but I think the reason is more simple. The bear – Terracini – got poked hard with a sharp stick and roared.

As a result, OA has decided not to aid the enemy. This is a courageous move, in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense. OA must know that these days there is no way of silencing a voice, no matter how excited people get about what looks like an attempt to do so. Well – the silencing will take place only if critics reckon the only way they will see a show is if OA provides them with a free ticket. Are we really that pathetically hobbled?

It goes without saying OA’s response has been incredibly shortsighted, not the least because it’s always an own goal when the media is taken on. I must say, though, had I been Cunningham I would have expected to be taken off the list for a bit – logic indeed demanded it. A pity about that heading. It was unequivocal. The thing is, Cunningham’s piece was very astute, even if written in a combative tone. Perhaps nothing would have happened, or at least not publicly, if not for a heading that got up on its hind legs and begged OA to reassign Cunningham’s tickets. OA should have resisted. Own goal.

As for Simmonds, well, she has an invigorating turn of phrase and doesn’t mind dishing it out. But is OA breaking a butterfly on a wheel?

I devoutly wish the cost of theatre tickets were considered as necessary a part of media budgets as is trailing after politicians and sending cricket writers around the nation. I wish that the arts were funded so lavishly that opera tickets cost just a few dollars and repertoire could be much, much riskier; that the whole business of cost was irrelevant, leaving only artistic merit to be argued over.

But we don’t live in that world. So we accept the freebies while asserting our independence from what that implies. It doesn’t surprise me at all that every now and then the inherent contradiction gives rise to some fractiousness.