“Dying” theatre and “lacklustre” jazz festivals – it’s all opinion, right?

Two incidents this week, plus the wave of interesting entries we’ve received for the SA Arts Journalism Awards – whose judging panel I chair – made me think about how newspapers use their arts journalists.

First, there was Theatregate in last weekend’s Saturday Star. 48 Hours writer Tat Wolfen published a full-page story about the alleged decline of South African theatre. Illustrated with a gloomy photograph of the long-closed Alhambra, it was filled with un-researched generalisations as broad as a four-lane freeway: most viciously, an attack on a younger generation condemned in its entirety as ignorant and consumerist… If the phrases “these people” and “this bloody government” were not explicitly uttered, their apoplectic sentiments nevertheless suffused the page. A hyperbolic street placard – “SA theatre in crisis” – compounded the ill-founded alarmism.

The piece was an elegy for some mythical good old theatrical days from a writer apparently unaware of what is really happening in theatre today, and where it is happening. Community, mixed-media, improvised and more kinds of theatrical performance, alongside original new plays, regularly attract engaged, diverse young (and older) audiences to non-conventional venues – such as Maboneng – across the city, as well as to places such as Wits Theatre, the Market and the Soweto Theatre. If certain performances are not filling seats as they used to, the reasons are rather that:

  • New audiences have little patience with endless resurrections of moribund musical comedies – and who can blame them?
  • As for audiences still hankering after the all-singing, all-dancing, walking theatrical dead, glitzy, out-of-town casino venues have sucked their disposable income out of the city, something that has also impacted harshly on the mainstream end of the live music scene.

Change happens; get used to it. It is not the same as decline.

In part two  of his article, yesterday, Wolfen expressed wounded indignation at the criticism his piece received. But surely it was written as a provocation? There could be no other reason for such ill-informed rhetoric. And even so, doesn’t any arts writer – and more so the newspaper that employs him – have a responsibility to research and get the facts right, even if the ensuing comment flies randomly free? The impact of such a story, run so prominently, could be to deter potential theatre-goers and investors, intensifying the very trend it purports to decry.

That isn’t an argument for censoring Wolfen though. Rather, it is a complaint about how much of the mainstream media have all but washed their hands of responsible arts reporting. Sometimes, the arts reporting space is filled by a critic when what the story needs is a trained journalist with the skills to investigate and report – while the media house remains wholly ignorant of the distinction. Otherwise, a hapless general reporter is handed arts assignments with no training and no assessment of his or her specialist knowledge.

That’s what the eThekwini Jazz Appreciation Society seems to believe happened in the Sowetan’s coverage of last weekend’s Joy of Jazz festival. Their treasurer has sent a long ‘open letter’ to the paper, bemoaning writer Patience Bambalele’s characterization of the event as having a “lacklustre” line-up and a “lukewarm” atmosphere.

I’m inclined to agree with Bambalele about the atmosphere, though as I said last week, I think that’s more a reflection of the Convention Centre space than of the line-up. I disagree with her about that; while there were many over-familiar names, there was more than usual that was fresh and genuinely exciting. Such diversity of views about an event are an important part of the arts debate.

What is really disturbing about the ‘open letter’, however, is the route by which it found its way to me. It was distributed by Khanya: the PR agency for Joy of Jazz.

One of the more important roles of the media is to open up debates. Journalists like Wolfen and Bambalele both have the right to express their judgments. Readers have the right to respond. Newspapers, indeed, have a duty to offer the right of response where there is convincing evidence that a subject of some reporting has been misrepresented.

But it is a little disturbing when a news subject apparently orchestrates an attack on a journalist’s work, rather than simply replying in its own right.

Joe Bloggs sells fried chicken. A food journalist describes it as “lukewarm and soggy”. The aggrieved Mr Bloggs responds indignantly – but then he would, wouldn’t he? We’d take seriously feedback disagreeing with the journalist and praising the chicken if it arrived spontaneously from members of the public. But if it was written by sock-puppets and forwarded by Bloggs, via his PR agency? Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

The open letter casting aspersions on Bambalele’s work has two recommendations. The first is to employ more specialist journalists. Few would disagree with that – except the media house bean-counters who control payments to specialist writers. The second is to write more previews “in the leadup to the festival.”

That is a proposal that serves promoters and organisers far better than it serves the public. Advertisers and promoters love previews. It’s hard to write a preview that does not function as unpaid advertising – until the event has happened, no-one knows what will go wrong. Editors like them too, in the mistaken assumption that reviews of past shows are ‘old news’ and thus uninteresting to readers. Those readers (for whom reviews genuinely help to scratch the FOMO itch) are rarely consulted.

I’d certainly like to see more informed arts journalism from specialist writers in the papers I read. I enjoy reading considered reviews and detest the puffery of many previews. I’d love to see more real journalism about the arts, rather than opinionated thumb-suck. But more than any of those, I want to see the media guarding its freedom of expression – even when it annoys me.

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