Trash and The Libel Case Or, How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic

9 Sep

I updated this blog for the first time in nearly three months last week, but I couldn’t update again without discussing the tale of my recent experience of dealing with a very difficult company at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This encounter was very unpleasant, stressful and infuriating. Despite my anger, I’ve decided not to name the company involved, but for the purposes of this blog I will refer to them as Sunshine Inc.

This was my fourth year of reviewing during the Fringe and my first experience of being a Fringe editor, as I took up the post of Scotland Editor at The Public Reviews in May. In the midst of sorting through the thousands of Edinburgh Fringe PRs I received, my editor, John, forwarded me a PR for a Fringe show, suggesting that we book tickets and make a fun evening of it. The show was being performed by Sunshine Inc, and was presented as a two-hour long interactive comedy show, that involved actors impersonating characters from a famous TV comedy.

I booked the tickets for the show through their internal PR contact, a woman I’ll call Melina, who, I have to stress was very polite, helpful and friendly at the beginning. I did have to move the tickets by one day because of a scheduling clash, but again, Melina was very accommodating, and both myself and John were very much looking forward to the evening.

The show, however, was not like we expected, and we quickly realised that while the characters in the piece were designed to look and sound like the TV characters – they dressed similarly, and they even used their famous one-liners – this was where the similarities to the TV show ended. The evening consisted of these actors using new and ‘original’ content instead of established sketches from the TV programme, which wasn’t what I was expecting. Suffice to say, I didn’t enjoy Sunshine Inc’s offering, and I wrote what was I felt was a negative, yet honest and fair review, which was published on The Public Reviews website shortly after. In my review, I stated that the show was “unauthorised” as when I researched the show, I found a number of articles and quotes from the makers of the TV show saying that the show had not been authorised by them. Quotes from Sunshine Inc’s Managing Director, Francis, revealed that he hadn’t contacted the makers of TV programme to ask for permission to use the characters. Furthermore, on Sunshine Inc’s website they stated in the small print that their work had no association with the makers of the original TV show. So, with this information to hand, I mentioned in the review that the show was unauthorised.

A few days after the review was published, Melina emailed me to ask if we had any feedback on the show, and I replied with a link to the review, along with a brief response explaining that I hadn’t enjoyed the evening, but thanking her for inviting me and John along.

Melina’s response was interesting, to say the least; she emailed me back almost immediately and asked for the details of our “Managing Director” stating that there were points in my review that were of “great concern”. I responded, explaining that John, my editor, was the best person to contact and included his email address.

However, Melina emailed me again to ask for John’s mobile number, but because John was reviewing throughout the day, I was unwilling to share his phone number without his consent, or without him knowing what was going on. I decided not to respond to her email immediately, and concentrated on getting in touch with John to explain the situation.

As I tried to get hold of John, however, Melina continued emailing me demanding John’s phone number, saying that Sunshine Inc’s managing director, Francis, wanted to speak to him. Again I didn’t reply to her emails as I was concentrating on getting in touch with John. However, Milena’s emails continued, and she then began demanding that I remove the review from the website “immediately”. She also claimed that the show was authorised, yet didn’t say by who, and didn’t produce any evidence of this authorisation. When that failed to elicit a response from me, she further claimed that my review was “lies” and was therefore “libel” and again demanded I take the review down “immediately”, or they “would take legal action’”.

After reading these emails, John asked Milena to send him an email detailing her concerns, and to also highlight what parts of the review that she and Francis believed to be libellous. He further asked her to include the evidence of their authorisation so that we could address their concerns. Milena, however, ignored this, and emailed me again, telling me to take down the review before they took legal action. I replied, repeating what John had said, and also stressing that we couldn’t help them until they told us what issues they had with my review. I also asked her to send me evidence of authorisation, and asked for specifics, including the details of who exactly had authorised the show, such as the TV channel, the production company or the show’s writers.

Milena responded, ignoring my request, offering no evidence of authorisation, and further accusing me of trying to discredit the company, alleging that I had something against Sunshine Inc. This is untrue; I had never heard of Sunshine Inc until John forwarded me their Fringe PR in May. After reading this email, and following legal advice, I was told not to respond to any further emails from either Milena, Francis or any other representative of Sunshine Inc, as they had stated they were taking legal action, and could use our emails against us in the future. The lawyer also assured us that if they really were taking legal action, we’d be hearing from their lawyer, and not them, as they would also be told not to contact us for the same reasons.

However, despite my silence, Milena continued to email me throughout the day, and her emails became steadily more aggressive and more bizarre. John even forwarded me an email that Milena had sent to him, alleging that I was involved with a rival theatre company, naming the founder of that company, a woman I shall call Julie, and stating that this company had a “history of malicious intent” against Sunshine Inc. Incidentally, when Milena emailed John with this allegation, she inadvertently libelled me and Julie by alleging we were working together. These emails culminated in Milena taking a screenshot of my Twitter account, stating that the nature of my tweets regarding their show, which had been written after the review had been published, showed my negative review had been “premeditated” and that they were “taking further action”. They further accused me of “gross unprofessionalism”.

I contacted the Fringe Media Office to ask for advice about the situation. To my surprise, they told me that they were aware of what was happening, as Sunshine Inc had contacted them earlier that day. They told me that in a phone call that lasted around an hour, both Milena and Francis had spoken to Fringe media officers, demanding that the Fringe use their “considerable power” to force John and me to remove the review from The Public Reviews. The Fringe Media Office refused, as they don’t possess that power, nor do they want to.

A few days later, someone from Sunshine Inc called my mobile, but I let the call go straight to answer phone. They didn’t leave a message, and luckily, they haven’t tried to phone me since. Their emails, however, continued until the end of the Fringe, as they emailed John on several occasions to ask for the details of our “Managing Director” and for an address, so they could send an “official letter of complaint.” Eventually, John emailed them back, explaining that we had no managing director, we had no official address as we are online media, and that the best way to get in touch was to email him with specific concerns. Which, irritatingly enough, was what we asked them to do weeks earlier, when they had first made legal threats. They responded, asking “Who owns and runs The Public Reviews?” To which John explained that he did, and we haven’t heard from them since.

This happened during the second week of the Fringe, and while I like to consider myself as an experienced and confident reviewer, this incident shook me to the core. It made me question myself, my writing, my abilities and my voice, and was an extra stress during an already incredibly stressful time. I trained in art journalism for two years at university, and I have worked hard for the last three years since graduating to establish myself as an honest, objective and constructive critic. While I have had my fair share of abuse because of my reviews, this is the first time that I have been threatened with legal action for what I have written. I researched the piece thoroughly, as I do with every review I write, and I wrote a truthful and accurate review.

What’s very interesting, however, is that Sunshine Inc had one other reviewer attend the show, who also gave them a negative review. I have spoken to the editor of that publication, and they have not been contacted by anyone from Sunshine Inc. Recently, I made contact with one of the writers of the TV show, who confirmed that Sunshine Inc had never received authorisation from him to use his characters in their show.

Reviews are, essentially, the reviewer’s opinion, and as with any thing else in life, opinions will differ on almost many subjects, especially when it comes to performance. People are entitled to disagree with critical opinion, just as they are entitled to disagree with popular opinion. However, threats of legal action, and the intimidation, bullying and harassment of journalists simply because someone disagrees with what they have written, are immoral, unethical and odious. I cannot and will not be treated this way, by a company that are so desperate to undermine my authority and my review that they are prepared to not only accuse me of libel, but also in turn, libel both me and Julie in email correspondence. I have no idea if Milena and Francis have threatened journalists before, but judging by how quickly they threatened me with legal action, I would hazard a guess that this probably isn’t the first time that they’ve done this.

My advice to any company that is disappointed with a review is to see what they can take from it. If the review is constructive, then there will be something positive in there that you can learn from. If the reviewer has made an error, such as a spelling error, or got the name of an actor wrong, then feel free to contact them and tell them. Journalists, like all human beings, are fallible, and often work to very tight deadlines, especially during Fringe time. Tight deadlines, full schedules and many, many sleepless nights can lead to mistakes in copy. Editors are often very happy to correct inaccuracies when contacted.

However, a difference in opinion is simply a difference in opinion. Libel law exists to protect people who have been libelled and who have had very unfair things said about them in print. It does not exist to prosecute journalists who give a show a negative review, and it most certainly was not created to be used as a threat designed to intimidate journalists, editors and bloggers. Libel is a very, very damaging word and process, it comes with responsibility and should only be used if there is an actual case for libel proceedings. Journalists are busy people. Journalists are especially busy during the Fringe; we don’t even have the time to respond to the most basic emails during August, let alone waste precious hours and even days, dealing with baseless and utterly false allegations against us. I am very angry that I had to devote what little time I had during the Fringe to Sunshine Inc, because it cut into my reviewing schedule, which meant that I couldn’t attend the shows that I really, really wanted to review.

So to all journalists and bloggers: familiarise yourself with UK media law; study it until you can recite it. Join the NUJ – they have lots of lawyers who can deal with threats like this on your behalf. Stand your ground, don’t give into intimidation, bullying and aggressive, underhand tactics by “companies” like Sunshine Inc.

To all the people who supported me during this difficult time, including John and Glen at The Public Reviews, my close friends and family, the Fringe Media Office, Liam Rudden of The Edinburgh Evening News, Nick Awde of The Stage, and the CATS panel, including Michael Cox, Joyce McMillan, Mary Brennan, Allan Radcliffe, Mark Brown, Neil Cooper, Mark Fisher, Thom Dibdin and Gareth K. Vile: thank you. Your words and advice were of great comfort, and I’m so glad that you took the time to listen to me and support me last month.

And finally, to Sunshine Inc, I will say this: journalists communicate with one another. This means that if you threaten a writer or a publication with legal proceedings, other writers will hear about it. Once others learn about your treatment of journalists, it damages your reputation more than any negative review ever could. Some might say that’s ironic, but to me, that’s poetic justice.

Update: Following a request from Interactive Theatre International (formerly Interactive Theatre Australia) I am happy to confirm that the show and company in this blog have no connection with Interactive Theatre International or their show, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience which was performed at B’est Restaurant at this year’s Fringe.

33 Responses to “Trash and The Libel Case Or, How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic”

  1. James Mackie September 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    You should name the company. Go on, go on, go on. Although it may be an ecumenical matter.

    • trashtaylor September 10, 2012 at 12:49 am #

      Hi James, I did consider naming the company, but decided against it, primarily in order to defend myself against further accusations from them.

      Despite being a theatre critic, I prefer my drama on the stage, as opposed to off it!

  2. Mark Fisher September 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    Great post, Amy. Sad you had to write it, though. All power to you.

    • trashtaylor September 10, 2012 at 12:35 am #

      Hi Mark, thank you. The post has had a great response so far, and I feel so much better for writing it!

  3. Bob in Vienne September 10, 2012 at 8:44 am #

    Reblogged this on Bob in Vienne and commented:
    Journalists sometimes get dogs abuse and like Amy here should stand up for themselves and back their judgement. That is what we expect from them folks.

  4. Chris September 10, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Hi Amy, sorry to hear this happened – I hate to say it, but I’ve had similar experiences with other companies (who shall remain nameless for similar reasons as your own) – it’s just not on. You’ve got an entire industry behind you who find this just as disgusting as you do behind you – don’t let yourself be bullied!

  5. Peter Michael Marino September 10, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    This piece proves what an excellent writer you are, Amy. The company clearly didn’t acquire the rights to the tv show material and their inexperience and naïveté was clearly expressed by their knee-jerk reaction. Good on you for hanging in there and for not publishing the name of the company.

  6. Sheridan Humphreys September 10, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    It’s never a good idea to escalate to legal threats – unless you have genuinely taken legal advice. In my experience, most papers and critics are happy to correct genuine errors, and rarely (ok, never) is there malicious intent behind an error in a theatre review. But you can always phone a top libel lawyer to get an opinion for free – they are not just available to the wealthy, don’t let that ever put you off. And not all theatre PRs are like that either!

  7. Mary Tapper September 10, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Much sympathy Amy, don’t let one bad experience put you off…the way this company are behaving they won’t be around for long…..

    Deep breath and once more into the breach fellow reviewer!
    M x

  8. Ian Fox September 10, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    I thought it was well known that the company didn’t have the rights, Chortle ran a piece last year that spoke to the production company and creators. If you go the site and search “Is Fringe show infringing trademarks?” you’ll find the piece.

  9. Lucy Thackray September 10, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    It’s interesting, it’s only since I’ve been reviewing other things (hotels, restaurants) as well as theatre that I’ve realised how hysterical and childish theatre people can be. I know it’s a dramatic industry, but some balance & maturity would be nice. It’s usually a case of feeling attacked all round – I doubt ‘Sunshine’ would have been in touch at all if their reviews were largely good and yours a rogue negative one. The upshot is, don’t invite reviewers unless you are confident in your product: confident enough to ignore criticism and stay sure of its worth, or confident enough to take it on the chin and maybe make some changes for future runs. It’s very sad that some people like TPR writers review purely for the love of theatre and things like this happen and knock you for six. Well done for standing your ground.

  10. JohnnyFox (@johnnyfoxlondon) September 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Huge sympathies. I was in a similar spot last year with my Edinburgh review of Ladyboys of Bangkok but fortunately John from TPR was able to contain the explosion before it got litigious.

    All publicity is good publicity and most threats are empty.

    Equally, libel is very hard to prove when it can be passed off as an honestly-held opinion. Were there other negative reviews of the same show ?

    Good luck. x

  11. George Dearsley September 10, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Good post. I think you were right NOT to name the company. Not worth creating more aggravation over this issue. But the behaviour of its staff is deplorable. You’ve learned a tough lesson: that people don’t like criticism, even fair criticism when it is in public. You just have to be true to yourself, continue to be objective and develop a thicker skin. You’ll have lots of positive experiences too, I’m sure.

  12. stephanie rowe September 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Well done Amy and TPR for sticking to your guns and not allowing this company to use bullying tactics to get their own way. I have reviewed for the public reviews since its start and have come across some rude obnoxious people (not just theatre companies) . Keep up the good work and dont let anyone make you doubt yourself or the fabulos qork you are doing.

  13. Alan Hartop September 10, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Really enjoyed reading this and thanks Amy for taking the time to put it up. Their threats against a fair and balanced review are absurd.

    I would expect the reason that they did not get in touch with the other company who placed a negative review is because they would have taken particular offence to the word ‘unauthorised’. Clearly, your use of this word is not your opinion, as the show can only have been authorised or not. Had they had the show authorised then the review could fairly have been referred to as ‘libellous’ (although one call from their press team asking to remove that word would have sorted that one out, without resulting in legal action).

    As it was, you obviously did your homework to your credit and as journalists have every right to find out. I’m amazed that they had the time or desire to continually bombard your inbox with insults that sound libellous in their nature themselves.

    I used to review at the Fringe and after giving one bad review, found that my piece had a rating of minus 24 – I think the cast, their family and friends all were determined to see my review be discredited! But that was fine; they offered their opinion on my article, same as I did on their Godawful show…

  14. Jane Hobson September 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    That sounds like a horrible experience, Amy! I’m so glad you got support whilst you were up there – easy to feel all alone when working away. J x

  15. Ian Fox September 10, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Just a thought but aside from the intimidation issue here, there is the issue of infringed trademarks and it perhaps it should be suggested to the Fringe Society who already question whether or not you’ll be using music in a show and you pay relevant PRS fees at the end of your run. I don’t see why they can’t ask when you fill in your programme registration “If you’re using characters and material created by others do you have the rights to perform the material” and simply not allow anyone who doesn’t have rights into the main programme.

  16. jenmcgregor September 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    Good for you, Amy, for writing this and exposing this company’s pathetic attempts to get you to take down a negative review. And good for the Scottish arts journalism community for being supportive of you!

    Interesting that they’re so quick to throw the word ‘libel’ about while taking such liberties with your character, accusing you of being connected to a rival company, premeditating your review and such.

  17. Michael Nunn September 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    As a professionally-trained journalist as well as an impresario and theatre director (I’ve just organised and performed in A Taste of Dickens at Lancaster Grand Theatre) I totally endorse Amy’s intelligent, factual and lucid comments. I once saw a show (no name, no venue or company) with my then Editor,and we both agreed there was no alternative to write and publish a negative review.

    On its publication, the cast and other members of the organisation concerned (based in the same City as I am) were angry and upset, and there was a lot of badmouthing. Nevertheless, one of the ‘committee’ which was ultimately responsible for the show approaced my be email through my Editor, and we agreed to meet for a cup of coffee – on the committee’s premises.

    Taking a packet of biscuits with us, my partner and I had a throroughly cordial chat with several of the committee over the next hour or more, and we all agreed that yes, the show was dreadful and were also agreed about why it was so dire.

    Since that day, some years ago, the committee and its cast and crew have enjoyed an excellent working relationship, and we have every show they’ve performed since. We also meet socially, as well as pforessionally, the committee and casts and crews of the shows since the one in question.

    ‘That’s the way to do it!’ as Mr Pumch said.

    So yes, Amy, when a critic slates your show, you have the option of asking to meet (online, or in person) the reviewer who will (or certainly should) give positive feedback and informed constructive criticism.

    There’s absolutely no future whatever in theatre groups or companies kicking up a fuss when they get a bad write-up; it gets them nowhere and ill-feeling like this not only spreads but can last for years.

    Besides, manners cost nothing!

    Best wishes, and don’t let incometent and ill-informed luvvies grind you down. If they can’t take criticism, they shouldn’t be in the game!

    Best wishes,

    Michael Nunn
    Lancaster Theatre Productions, and regular Arts contributor to the Lancashire Evening Post etc.

  18. Deborah Klayman September 11, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

    A well-written and extremely even handed article Amy, particularly given the way in which you have been treated. I think the fact you have not named the company (although others have!) despite their vicious and threatening behaviour shows that your professionalism is beyond reproach and that the company in question lack that very quality.

    I have had two rather unpleasant incidents of a similar nature during my six years as a reviewer, once while writing for Three Weeks and once during my time with TPR. Even though you, and those who know you and your work, are certain that is is a review based on your honest response to a production you have experienced – and one that your readers will pay for if they see it (often at great expense) – it is still hard not to question yourself and take verbal and written attacks personally.

    Like you I will not name the companies in question, but the first stalked me over the internet in order to get my personal email address to which they sent abuse, and the second had friends/colleagues etc inundate my editor with calls for my review to be removed and for me to be banned for writing for the publication. That person then met said editor in the street and claimed he had nothing to do with the behaviour of his ardent fans and said my review was helpful in improving his show. Finally a professional, no? No, because that same person then told a colleague and friend of mine that I am “evil”, “the devil”, that I clearly have it in for him (despite having given a positive review to a previous show of his) and said that my editor had banned me from reviewing him and would instead see all his shows personally in the future. True? Not one word, and luckily the person he approached is a good friend, however I know he continues to blacken my name at every opportunity. As a performer myself I do often wish I had begun writing under a pseudonym because of these incidents, but I didn’t and continue to hope, like you, that my writing shows my true colours.

    Keep up the good work x

  19. penandpoise September 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Well said! Really good article. As a writer I must admit it can be galling to get a bad review though once you’ve got over that “I’m a genius and the world doesn’t understand!” moment, they’re usually very helpful. Though the worst review I ever got, which criticsed the KNITTING of one character for being “shapeless lumps of wool” is still remembered fondly for being a very different sort of “bad” review. :)

    I also had a self-appointed best friend who indulged in a bit of internet bullying when I failed to cast her in my first play for being (wait for it) too YOUNG. I don’t think she’s worked much lately.

    I don’t think that you can ever be talented enough to justify rudeness / agressiveness. This industry has it’s own strains and stresses all the aggro from bruised egos just isn’t helpful.

  20. Gonefishingjw September 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    Having seen this show (until walking out), and having complained to the company about being disappointed, and about feeling cheated by the “raffle” without being responded to, I only wish I had read your review before booking. More power to you Ms Taylor.

  21. w.w. September 17, 2012 at 1:00 am #

    Just wait til you get your first death threat. Having to call the police because you wrote a bad review of something is quite the odd experience!

  22. thenorthernscribbler June 25, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Blimey, this sent chills down my spine reading this article. I’ve only been reviewing shows for six months and luckily all of them so far have been excellent – I dread the day when I have to write something negative.
    Thanks for being so honest Amy.

    • trashtaylor June 25, 2013 at 11:28 am #

      Thanks Sarah!

      Never dread being negative; not every show will be good, and this was a very extreme example of a company doing everything wrong. Remember, a good PR can spin a bad review, so keep writing. Keep reviewing and don’t let the bastards get you down!

  23. thenorthernscribbler June 25, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Reblogged this on The Northern Scribbler.

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