Index on Censorship and the price of principle: Loneliness

The Daily Mail ran riot last week with a three page feature claiming that powerful trustees from the philanthropic charity Esmée Fairbairn had denied funding to Index on Censorship because of its opposition to a post-Leveson system of UK press regulation.

Not so. In fact the trust nixed the funding – overruling its own officers’ recommendation in the process – because Index’s firm line on issues like the creative right to offend did not appeal to the Esmée Fairbairn board’s taste for socially inclusive arts. Its line on Leveson had nothing to do with it.

Why is this a matter of concern? “Daily Mail gets story wrong,” is hardly news. Neither is “Daily Mail tale nails today’s target of vitriol”. (In this case Esmée Fairbairn trustee David Bell, founder of the Media Standards Trust, the Mail’s sworn foe in its war against post-Leveson regulation, and itself a beneficiary of Esmée Fairbairn funds.)

Because it still leaves some unanswered questions about the price of principle at Index on Censorship. The Esmée trustees argued that in their sector, not expressing the controversial is sometimes the right thing to do. As they understood the organisation, Index on Censorship could never imagine such a scenario, let alone endorse it. So they declined to fund them. But I’m simplifying the story.

Index on Censorship’s proposed three year programme, dubbed ‘The Art of Free Expression’, was intended to “support artistic and cultural freedom of expression in the UK through debate, analysis, investigation and advocacy,” and to follow up an earlier Esmée Fairbairn funded project.

Esmée’s trustees were impressed by the quality and range of the work they had funded up to that point, and recognised that Index had struck a chord with the sector, given the number of high profile arts figures that had connected with the programme.

All of the trustees thought the issue needed significant attention. They wanted to see a tailored and responsive service that worked with arts organisations as they planned for potentially challenging or controversial productions.  Such a service would help the organisations feel supported as they tried to manage difficult public debates as they came up, with subtlety, nuance and understanding.

They simply doubted that Index had these qualities.

Esmée Fairbairn recognised and applauded Index on Censorship’s credibility as the country’s leading anti-censorship organisation, and its position as a full hearted supporter of free expression in all contexts, committed to challenge all forms of censorship, whatever the case.

But the trustees also felt that this position was easier to sustain in politics than in the arts, where the nature of the relationship between an arts body, its audiences, and wider society sometimes required nuanced intervention, rather than full-throated defiance.

This chimed with the preliminary findings of Index’s research. Arts organisations that were expected to live by their community connections, whether to meet Arts Council conditionalities or just sell tickets, were inevitably circumspect about art that might offend those same communities.

Simply put, Esmée’s trustees thought Index’s steely principles left it short of the nuance the job required – the capacity to understand the challenges from the inside of an evolving situation and refining what works best in terms of support. So its proposal was rejected.

In reality it was a frank appraisal of two very different perspectives. As another observer noted, the trustees addressed questions so open to subjective opinion that they defied proper analysis; a different composition of trustees may well have reached the opposite conclusion.

Whatever, it had nothing to do with Index’s position on Leveson. (I know that some at Index have suggested differently, but this is the inevitable result of high staff turnover and the total loss of its institutional memory, not to say a lot of its files. Esmée Fairbairn itself gracefully declines to comment on individual funding applications, as a rule.)

There are several trying consequences of all this. The first is that there is still no UK organisation out there helping arts organisations plan, present and defend challenging arts. The Tate is in line to have a go, but monolith that it is, it has shortfalls of subtlety, nuance and understanding of its own.

Secondly, though Esmée’s decision was unconnected to its view on Leveson, it may reenergise the efforts of pro-media regulation pressure group Hacked Off to bring Index on Censorship into line with its thinking. Index has flatly rejected, on principle, Hacked Off’s plan to force accountability on the tabloid corporate media through a Royal Charter mandated press regulator.

There are, as Hacked Off grandee Hugh Grant says, ‘gradations’ of regulation between absolute freedom of the press and Zimbabwean repression. The few gradations sideways Hacked Off proposed would be barely visible and limited in effect. Admirably, to Index, even one gradation that way would be one too many. That steely opposition is an embarrassment to Hacked Off, which like the Esmée board, recognises the impact of Index’s record and reputation on the debate.

However Index’s noisier supporters have been infuriated by Index’s eccentric decision to appoint Hacked Off leading light Steve Coogan as a non-executive patron of the organisation. Unhelpfully their response has been not to stay and fight their corner, but to walk away – some pausing only to give Index a vindictive kicking in the mainstream media on the way out.

A pragmatic world is gently smothering Index and its principles. Yet in days past, Index on Censorship was much less ready to paint itself into a semantic corner on reasons of principle alone.

Former CEOs like Ursula Owen tended to resist the idea of Index as an advocacy group. The battle for free expression was indeed fierce, but Index was a war correspondent in that fight, not a soldier. For old Index hands like her, the fascination of the job lay in picking apart the arguments for and against restrictions on free expression – not making them.

Perhaps there will be a return to those days under new management at Index. Much would be lost, but survival might be assured. After all you can’t eat principles. You can’t pay staff with them either.

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