On 29th June, the Arts Council England finally announced its new “Catalyst Arts” philanthropy programme, aimed at pushing arts organisations towards a US-style corporate and private philanthropy culture. It’s ironic that 3 days later, PLATFORM had a close encounter with censorship from a major arts venue, the Shell-sponsored Southbank Centre, London.

As part of the London Literature Festival, PLATFORM was invited to present our forthcoming book “The Oil Road” (by Mika Minio and James Marriott), alongside writer Neal Ascherson and moderator Gareth Evans on 3rd July. The Oil Road is a travelogue and analysis of how oil travels from the Caspian to Europe. It focuses on human rights and environmental impacts of one particular pipeline, chiefly backed by oil company BP.

We had emailed with the SBC events manager in advance about bringing materials to put out on a table for the audience’s interest, to which she agreed.

On arrival half an hour before the event, the events manager stated she needed to check with the marketing manager about our supporting literature and that this is standard practice. It was the Duty Manager who explained that material could not be put out which could be seen to be inciting action or being overtly critical of Shell. (This is not a direct quote but paraphrase.)

Our materials – which as it happens were mostly focused on BP and RBS – were looked at cursorily, and all were “passed” after questions such as “is there anything on Shell in this?”.

This was a clear example of the dangers to freedom of expression which are only set to increase under a push towards corporate philanthropy, unless bold moves are made to stand firm on ethics and censorship.

It’s also an example of massive internal contradictions within an organisation. SBC staff attempted to mute discussion on important environmental issues pertaining to Shell, because of risk of offence to a major sponsor. Yet other staff were happy to programme an event that was detailing similar abuses of power by BP.

This was not the first time we have experienced trouble and confused messages from SBC over Shell, when we have been an agreed part of their programme:

- During the Freedom and Culture Festival, on 10 November 2007, SBC staff presented sudden strong objections to the temporary placement of the Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa on Queen Elizabeth Walk, which had been carefully planned and agreed. SBC was part of the original Remember Saro-Wiwa Coalition (run by PLATFORM) and had previously programmed a major event on this, which was heavily critical of Shell, featuring Wole Soyinka, Lemn Sissay, Alice Oswald and others.

- During LIFT’s “A Parliament for Climate Change”, held at SBC on 6 July 2008, LIFT staff were put under pressure over an event PLATFORM was running that debated the ethics of Shell’s sponsorship of SBC in light of abuses in Nigeria and climate change.

Last week, in a letter to SBC’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly we challenged SBC on the censorship issue, and demanded to know what their policy was with regard to programming artists who may be critical of their sponsors. We also pointed out that Jude was the keynote speaker two days after our event, at an Index on Censorship event at Free Word (on 5th July). Her support for the crucial work of Index on Censorship seemed a massive contradiction with what we experienced at the weekend, and on previous occasions.

Jude Kelly phoned us later the same day, “to put something right that was clearly wrong”. And backed up the conversation with an email:

“…We have no policy at all that instructs staff to avoid criticism of sponsors. We do have a policy that says 3rd party advertising is by discretion -ie rival concerts…etc. But that’s not related to sponsors at all. However — i can promise you we would not create the programme of debate, polemic and inquiry around controversial and contested subjects if we separately wished to censor criticism. Nevertheless, we are to blame for not giving staff a clear guide that supports them understand the apparent contradictions that can seem to arise in a world were sponsorship and free speech live side by side. If there was confusing action that is our fault not theirs…”

One question we will be pursuing with SBC arises about written and unwritten policies. A culture can be fostered where tacit understanding is all that is needed. It can be in interest of the big arts institutions to let internal self-censorship operate when it comes to sponsorship (or any other hot political issue). Senior management can say that there is no written policy – which may be true – while staff in the Marketing or Corporate Relations department may be delivering other instructions verbally, or in informal written exchanges.

There are many precedents for senior management being seen to “keep their hands clean”, while staff in other parts of the hierarchy are handling the real agenda. Do SBC staff in Marketing and Corporate Relations agree with the position as described by the Artistic Director? The Duty Manager was absolutely clear in his message. He had been instructed.

Finally, this incident revolving around censorship does not escape from the fact that SBC takes money from the fossil fuel industry, thus endorsing climate change, rather than endorsing activity which moves us away from it. This relationship polishes the image of the oil industry, and, in the words of a recent Arts & Business report, illustrates “how the arts render authenticity to business”. The new arts philanthropy will be no more than a gloss on the barnacle of industry if we don’t have a discussion and take action urgently on where ethics and aesthetics meet.