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Trash’s 20 Arts Criticism Tenets

15 Jan
Image by GabeWW, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by HeyGabe, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

1. Sit down and shut the fuck up.

2. Your phone is not important during a performance.

3. Separate your personal feelings about an artist from their work. Love the art, hate the artist.

4. Write for the reader.

5. Listen to criticism of your work, but brush off the abuse.

6. Stay humble, no one wants to work with an asshole.

7. Be passionate about your work.

8. Fact check, fact check, oh dear Lord, fact check.

9. The only thing that should restrict your review is the word count.

10. A good critic can work around any word count,.

11. Going to a performance with an open mind and no expectations can lead to great experiences.

12. Remember that a review is not a stagnant piece of prose; it is a fluid work, it adapts, evolves and grows as you do.

13. Resisting change is futile.

14. Refusing to travel to “the regions” to see “regional work” will be your downfall.

15. Pay attention to what you’re reviewing; an alarming amount of ‘critics’ don’t.

16. Don’t write about yourself; the reader wants to read about the show, not your memories.

17. However, if you have a very relevant story to share, then by all means, share it. Just make sure that it’s relevant to the piece.

18. If you attempt to write a review that spends more time discussing how attractive or unattractive you find the actors in the piece, then you shouldn’t be a journalist, let alone a reviewer.

19. Try to keep on top of your emails, because some people will only email you once.

20. Don’t draw attention to yourself while you’re working. It’s off-putting to performers and it makes you look like a tool.

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My Failed New Year’s Resolutions

8 Jan

Image by elycefeliz, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

I love New Year. I love the fireworks, the celebrations and the sense of optimism that comes with the dawning of each new calendar year.

But I absolutely suck at sticking to my New Year’s resolutions.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried; for a while my only resolution was to not make a resolution, and I stuck to that for a while. I’m also lucky in that I don’t fall into the usual resolutions of stopping smoking or drinking, because I don’t smoke and I very rarely drink.

But when I look back at the resolutions I’ve neglected to achieve over the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that they failed, not because I didn’t try, but because they weren’t the right resolutions for me at the time.

Resolution One: Lose Some Weight, Fatty

I was quite skinny when I was younger. In fact, I was so skinny that I never realised just how skinny I was until I wasn’t that skinny any more. Your body, like your personality, changes over time, and while I’m not a size 8, I’m still a healthy weight for my size.

In fact, I’m happier now in my body than I ever was before, and while some bits could do with firming up, and I fantasise about having Linda Hamilton Terminator 2-esque biceps, it won’t happen overnight, and that’s ok. I’ll continue eating healthily and working at my physical day job, that’ll do for now.

Resolution Two: Stop Procrastinating…Tomorrow….No, Today

“Procrastination,” my mother once declared, “’tis the thief of time!” and she was right. I procrastinate too much, I live in my head too much, I think about doing something for too long when I should just do it. Case in point: I thought about blogging for four years before I actually did anything about it.

I know I’m not alone in procrastinating, which is reassuring, but whilst I have looked at other ways of working, such as the Pomodoro Technique and blocking access to Facebook and Twitter while working, my mind needs to wander.

While I may not be able to stop procrastinating altogether, I can deal with it in better ways; such as allowing myself breaks, getting into a better work at home routine and changing my attitude towards tasks that have to be done. As someone once said to me, “You have to stop thinking that you should do something, and instead start thinking that you need, want or wish to do something.” This advice has made a big difference to just about every aspect of my life.

Resolution Three: Go Back to University

Around this time last year, I blogged about my quest to get back into higher education after graduating nearly four years previously. This year marks five years since that fateful day when I put on a big, silly gown, got all nervous, shook Sir Tom Farmer’s hand and got my degree, and I’m still no closer to going back to university.

In fact, if anything, I’m a little more conflicted about the whole thing; it’s expensive, you’re not guaranteed a job, and there are lots of journalists that say that postgraduate degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. All the advice I’ve had about getting into the media has been pretty contradictory, and while some still insist that experience, not qualifications, matter, I’ve noticed that an alarming number of media job adverts begin with the terrifying statement: “You will have a journalism qualification.”

So, what next? In the next few months, I aim to find out more about funding and bursaries and see if there’s anything that I would be suitable for. I can also do a much less expensive, but very respected NCTJ Course in my own time, which would give me that elusive journalism qualification without the £6,000+ price tag.

Resolution Four: Learn to Drive

I’ve been meaning to learn to drive since I was 17. I’m now 28, and although I have a provisional driving license and I once owned a car with my former partner (it was a purple VW Golf MK3, affectionately referred to as Reggie, I loved that car) I’ve never had a driving lesson.

There are many reasons for this; procrastination, sheer laziness, expense and the fact that Edinburgh’s bus service is really very good, so, logically, when would I actually drive? Still, I need to learn to drive because it’s an important skill to have on my CV, it would allow me greater freedom to travel around the country and beyond, and at nearly 30, sitting behind the wheel of a parked car going “Vroom! Vroom!” Just doesn’t do it for me any more.

Resolution Five: Read More

I used to love reading. I’d read into the early hours of the morning and then read again the next day. My parents would buy me a small pile of books every Christmas, thinking they would last me until March and then despair when they realised that I’d read them all by New Year.

But then, I went to university, and I wasn’t allowed to read for fun. My degree, while a drama course, was more academic than practical, and we had to read at least three plays a week, combined with several dull critical theory texts. Have you ever read Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author? It makes an interesting point, but it’s turgid; it’s worse than Sunset Song and Highland River, both of which I had to read in High School, and both of which keep popping up on Scotland’s greatest books lists, much to my utter disgust.

And if you think about it, reading a play is a very different experience to watching a play. Just as reading a book because someone in authority says you must read it takes all the fun out of the experience.

So, I got bored with reading, and all these years later, I still struggle to finish a book, because I get distracted. I have got better; last year, I read the entire Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy, and I’m halfway through Mark Kermode’s latest, and really very good tome, Hatchet Job. After that, I’m going to read all the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin, so I’m getting there.

Resolution Six: Go to the Theatre/Cinema For Fun!

For years, going to the theatre and the cinema has been work for me – I’m there to review after all – and so, I go there in full critic mode, complete with notebook and eagerness to ‘read’ the work.

Sometimes it’s hard to get out of this mindset, and I have to re-learn how to enjoy going to the theatre or the cinema as a regular audience member, not some poor arts hack with a bashed notebook. The experience needs be an escape again for me, as it should be for everyone else, and I need to stop getting so annoyed by badly behaved audiences.

Resolution Seven: Stop Getting Annoyed by Badly Behaved Audiences

Hey, I’ll stop getting annoyed when they learn how to behave.

2013 – There and Back Again

30 Dec
Image by dickdavid shared under a Creative Commons License

Image by dickdavid shared under a Creative Commons License

If you, like me, have emerged bleary eyed but largely unscathed from the annual festive fuckwittery that descends during the seemingly never-ending Christmas season, you’ll probably be reflecting on the events of the last year. (I’m not much of a Christmas person.)

2013 was a mixed year for lots of reasons. A divisive political figure died and had a big funeral that a much-hated politician cried at. Another divisive political figure died, and a bunch of world leaders took a selfie during his memorial service. A woman gave birth to a baby boy, and everyone had an opinion on it. A woman twerked on American television, and everyone had an opinion on it. Far too many of the UK’s most vulnerable continue to suffer because of benefit sanctions, welfare cuts and increasingly inhumane policies brought in by an increasingly inhumane government has continued their mission to punish the poor with nonsensical expenses and create tax breaks for the rich.

And I still can’t twerk or take a decent selfie. But, I digress.

This time last year, I worked full-time for an online marketing company. I’d taken the job because it was better paid than the one I’d had before, and, as I’d reasoned at the time, working 9-5 during the week gave me ample time to write, review and do everything else that I wanted to do.

However, I had a dream, a few dreams, in fact; I wanted to write, and I wanted to write on a freelance basis on my own terms. I longed to be my own boss and work on projects that I could see to fruition. I wanted to get out there, network and meet more people, not be stuck at a desk everyday, working on projects that might never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Yet, the logical part of me (there is a sensible voice somewhere in my head) told me to stop dreaming; that my job was more than enough, that it was paying the bills and for a while, my dreams were pushed aside. It wasn’t long before they resurfaced, bobbing up and down in my subconscious, like the remnants of magnificent and mighty shipwreck. There they remained, always on the horizon, always waiting, and always just out of reach.

My day job kept me busy – too busy – and before long I realised that my writing had taken second place next to a job that I didn’t enjoy, that I didn’t want to do, and was taking up more and more of my time. I felt constantly tired, I was taking work home with me, getting stressed, not sleeping, and always worrying, worrying, worrying about what I hadn’t done, and what I needed to be doing.

I knew life as a freelance writer would be difficult, and that money wouldn’t be guaranteed, but I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t let the fear of failure hold me back, and as far as I was concerned, I’d already lost enough time working in an office when I wanted to be anywhere else but there. So, in August, I made the proverbial leap of faith; I gave my employer five weeks notice, and set about applying for jobs.

It was tough, a lot harder than I thought it would be; over a month after I left the relative safety of the 9-5 world, and after many, many rejections, unanswered applications and ignored speculative emails, all I managed to get was seasonal work delivering flyers for a well-known venue. There were days that I would go around town with my CV, handing it in to any business that was advertising for staff: shops, bars, coffeehouses – anywhere. I never heard back from any of them.

I’ve wanted to write for as long as I remember, and I knew I had to give it my best shot. Eventually, and through a dear friend, I managed to get some regular writing work, working on articles and blog posts for, you’ve guessed it, an online marketing company. I also work part-time in a restaurant, thanks to another old friend who was looking for staff, and so, I have days off during the week, where I can balance my personal writing with my work writing. It’s not the most comfortable way of living; I’ve made sacrifices in order to pay the bills (gone are the days of Spotify Premium, LoveFilm and buying brand new clothes whenever and wherever) but it’s a much better way to live.

I may have made a few mistakes along the way, and leaving the comfort of a stable job to follow your dreams without a back up plan isn’t the most logical thing I’ve ever done (whatever happened to that sensible voice in my head?), but sod logical. I’ve made the first step on a long journey of happiness, and I’m really enjoying this new beginning. In fact. I’m proud of what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved and I’m looking forward to what I will do in 2014.

Happy New Year!

Seven Alternative Job Titles For Arts Journalists

11 Dec
Image by Gwendal_ used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by Gwendal_ used under a Creative Commons Licence

Freelance Journalist

With publications haemorrhaging money like stuck pigs on a daily basis, they’ve been forced to lay off staff writers to save money. The downside of this is that lots of immensely talented writers have lost their job security.

The upside is that many publications have a freelance budget and will be looking for writers, people who are just like you and me, looking to pitch stories, meet new contacts and get paid for it.

The downside of that is you are competing with some of the industry’s best and most well-known journalists for work. Some publications are terrible at paying invoices on time and you won’t have a guaranteed income from month to month.

Good luck!

Content Creator

A bullshit job title created for journalists by non-journalists who are trying to sound relevant in an increasingly digital age.

Created by online marketer-types to make accepted industry terms like copywriter seem redundant and oh so retro. Journalists do not “create content” journalists write news stories, reviews, previews, interviews and other fun and important things.

See also: Web Content Guru, Web Editor, Word Architect and Senior Syntax Engineer (I might have made some of these titles up. Yes, I definitely did.)

Contributor

A more acceptable title for someone who contributes articles or other works to a site or newspaper. Falls between a staff writer (someone employed by the publication on a full-time basis) and a freelancer, who work on a more casual basis. (see Freelance Journalist for more information).

All in all, this isn’t the worst title on the list, it’s just that’s not very clear; are contributors writers, photographers, artists or editors? This could be one for the corrections and clarifications column.

Sub-Editor

If you’re a struggling journalist, one way to make a bit more money is to find work as a sub-editor for a publication, which means that you’ll be correcting everyone else’s grammatical, factual and ethical errors, and getting very little in return for it. Except money.

While sub-editors are needed badly, they don’t seem to get a lot of respect from their fellow hacks, perhaps because they can sometimes get a little too enthusiastic with the delete button. However, every paper needs a sub-editor, and a lot of journalism schools offer short courses in the subject, so, it could be a fun and enlightening way to make some extra money.

Dramaturg/Special Advisor

The most commonly asked question about the role of the dramaturg is usually, “What’s a dramaturg?” It may sound a bit like the theatrical illness outbreak du jour, “I can’t come to rehearsal today, I woke up feeling like a dramaturg this morning”,  the role of the dramaturg is essential to a theatre production.

Put simply, a dramaturg could be described as an in-house critic; a person that researches, provides cultural and historical insight into the text, liaises with the director, playwright, designer and other crew they are also sometimes as a translator, or a simple communicator who provides critical feedback on a piece while it’s in production. A dramaturg wears many hats, and does several different things depending on the company, the production and the venue, so a good dramaturg is knowledgeable, adaptable and ready for a challenge.

This means a dramaturg could be the perfect role for a theatre critic seeking a new direction in their career, or a those looking to diversify their skills. In film, or another art form, a critic could be a special advisor, which is a particularly useful role for arts journalists with specialist knowledge of a certain era in film, director or subject.

PR

The relationship between PRs and journalists can be strained at the best of times, but more and more journalists are turning to the so-called ‘Dark Side’ and relaunching themselves in the world of PR. From a business and financial point of view, this makes a lot of sense, the pay is a bit better, you can use your many journalism contacts, etc, I’ve often found that the best PRs are the ones that have worked as journalists.

While some might wrestle with the idea of not reporting the news, and instead pitching ideas that could become big news stories, for others it’s become a way of life. PR pays very well if you work for a good agency, and have a senior position, which would suit many cash-strapped journalists in our era of austerity.

Unemployed

I’ll see you in the dole queue.

Surviving Bad Theatre

5 Dec
Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by boltron- used under a Creative Commons Licence

Once, during a particularly bad piece of theatre, a critic friend of mine, who was bored past the point of tears, decided to count the number of ceiling tiles in the auditorium. I can’t remember the exact amount of tiles, but it was an impressive number – it even made it into his review – but more recently, Lyn Gardner’s latest and excellent piece on the unique agony of watching bad theatre has got me thinking about how to survive a night of terrible theatrics.

I’ve walked out of show twice. The first time was during a Lithuanian production that was performed during the Baltic Theatre Festival in Riga, Latvia in 2011. It involved a lot of shouting. A LOT OF SHOUTING. At the interval, the group I was in met up, pulled the similar unimpressed expression, and made the unanimous decision to leave.

The second time was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012, and that was because the show was awful, and I mean, really awful. The only thing going for it was that it was dinner theatre, so at least I wasn’t hungry, but after two hours of cringeworthy attempts at comedy, and after realising that the show was running half an hour longer than it said it would, and after making eyes at the exit for, oh, most of the ‘performance’, me and my editor decided to make a run for it. Once we made our Sheepish Great Escape, a strange thing happened, other people followed our lead, perhaps buoyed by the realisation that yes, it was possible to leave before the end.

But in four years of semi-professional reviewing and six years of reviewing in total, why have I only ever walked out of two shows? Am I too trusting? Am I too optimistic? Or am I worried that my credibility could be questioned if I leave a show too early?

If I’m honest, it’s a mix of all three. While there is nothing that can physically stop me from leaving, bar being in the middle of the aisle, surrounded on either side by audience members with bad knees and an even worse attitude, the thought of leaving the theatre too early fills me with a kind of dread. In some ways, I must be a sucker for punishment, as I often find myself thinking that “Oh, it’ll get better in the second act…” and then when the inevitable terrible second act begins, I curse my eternal optimism, and gaze longingly at the door.

I can remember once, sitting next to the then-boyfriend of a friend of mine, during a particularly tedious production of Testing the Echo at the Traverse Theatre. I was fidgeting, desperate for it to end, and I found to my surprise that he was too. I longed to turn round and whisper to him that it was ok, I was also finding it really rather dull, but I was bound by two things: politeness and the reviewer’s code. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of knowing I had a kindred spirit in the auditorium, but I couldn’t tell them, so we had to sit there, in silent discomfort.

So, what is it about live performance that makes it difficult for me and indeed, others, to walk out? While I usually attend the theatre in my role as a critic, which can be pretty binding, theatre walkouts in general, as far as I have seen, tend to be few and far between. Is this need to endure bad theatre a typically British phenomenon? Are we worried about offending those on stage and our contemporaries in the audience?

It’s easy to walk out of a cinema, you can leave a gig without too many problems, some people like heckling both good and bad comedians, although I’ve never understood why, and pressing stop on a bad DVD, before using it as a  coaster until the end of time seems perfectly logical. But with theatre, why can’t I feel more confident about walking out of a bad show? Because I’m there to do a job, not a well-paid job, but a job none the less.

I think one of the greatest untruths about critics is that we love a bad show. While negative reviews can be easier to write, no critic I know would willingly invest their time in a poor production. If we’re going to review a show, any show in fact, we want it to be good, and if it isn’t good, then we want it to be short.

That’s all we want, or even need, we are a simple breed, really, because time is really important to us. Those few hours we spend squirming in the auditorium could be spent writing, with our families, pitching to editors, and dare I say it, at this time of year, Christmas shopping.

However, time is important to everyone, so, have you ever watched a piece of theatre until the bitter end? Or have you walked out voicing your disgust? I could use a few tips on what to do, or how to cope, so let me know your advice in the comments.

Trash Joins the NUJ

9 Oct
NUJ Protest

NUJ Protest

I am now a card-carrying, Code of Conduct adhering, press freedom defending and proud member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Or as my significant other said when he saw the NUJ acronym on the confirmation letter and my membership card, “Ooooh, you’re a NUDGE!”

Yes, I am a NUDGE. I am an official NUDGE with a card and everything, and I’m really very happy about this. I have a tendency to put things off, and despite meeting with NUJ members at an event designed to get Edinburgh’s student journalists to join the union in 2010, and despite urging others to join the union in my libel blog post, I never got round to it.

There were two reasons for this; first of all, I wasn’t a student, and therefore couldn’t register as a student member. I discussed this with the union representatives, and they said that I could probably register as a Temporary Member in the meantime. Secondly, to join the NUJ, you had to print off and fill out a couple of forms and then have two people NUJ members sign your forms as a kind of reference or endorsement. I did manage to get two people to sign the forms, but my busy schedule meant the forms lay forgotten in my bag until a few months later, when I found them crumpled and ripped and forgotten. I couldn’t send these forms to the NUJ, surely?

Due to my embarrassment at how poorly I’d treated such important documents, I didn’t, and every so often I would remind myself that I really should join the NUJ at some point. That was, until a few months ago, when the union announced that they were letting new members join online. No printing off forms, no signatures, no fuss. So, I took the plunge, and I filled out an online application to be a Temporary Member.

A few weeks later, the NUJ Membership office got in touch to say that they’d reviewed my application, and they felt that I was more suitable for full membership. So, a few changes to my application later, and pending approval from my local office, which could take up to 60 days, I was, unofficially, a member of the NUJ.

My confirmation and membership card came through at the beginning of October, and finally, I was in the union. So, after three years of thinking about joining the union and talking about joining the union, why did I suddenly decide that the time was right? I had two very strong reasons; the NUJ offers support and training to all members. As the NUJ is a union, it endeavours to give all its members a level of protection, whether this is legal assistance, financial support through NUJ Extra and campaigning for better pay and holidays.

Training is very important to me, and throughout the year, the NUJ holds various training days throughout the UK on topics such as freelancing, feature writing, media law and more technical subjects, such as website building. A good journalist should always be learning, but there is only so much that you can teach yourself on the job, so the NUJ offer training days to all members which cost around £100, and are also open to non-members for a slightly larger fee.

While the NUJ has had its problems recently, such as issues with cash flow, it remains an important union for journalists, writers, photographers and everyone involved in the media. it campaigns for our rights and with all the job cuts, redundancies and other issues in the industry, it’s good to know that there are people on our side fighting for the freedoms and interests of journalists, not just in the UK but around the world.

And in a country where the government’s plans for a state regulated press have become a real threat to journalistic freedom, it’s important to stand up and say: “I’m a NUDGE, are you?”

Letter to a Young Journalist

5 Oct
Letter to a Young Journalist

Image by A.K Photography, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Dear Young Journalist,

I want to talk to you about journalism; the path you have chosen. I don’t want to talk about theatre criticism, arts reviewing or news, but journalism as a career. I want to talk to you about the life that you might lead and the people you will meet.

I want to tell you about the nights you will spend alone, writing, editing, researching. The nights you will miss out on because you will be busy, or the evenings you will lose as you edit yet another blog post.

The first thing I want to tell you is that you have to read to be a journalist. You can’t be a good writer if you don’t read, and you can’t pitch to publications if you don’t read them. Get subscriptions to the publications you want to write for, and read books whenever you can; on the bus, on your lunch break, in the bath and just before bed.

Secondly, I must tell you that unsurprisingly, (well, it was somewhat of a surprise to me) we journalists aren’t always the most respected, or well-liked people on the planet. We are doubted, questioned and dismissed. You will have your integrity challenged and your writing ridiculed, but you will get used to it.

If the there is a ladder that leads to journalism success, then it’s a very long ladder. I like to imagine that it’s made of wood, that it looks sturdy and strong, it’s the kind of ladder your parents might use to go up to the attic, it’s familiar and seemingly friendly. But appearances are deceptive; this ladder is treacherous in places, and it may be risky at points to climb.

In fact, you may have to go down a couple of rungs before you are able to go further in your career. And some rungs on the ladder are unforgiving. Some rungs are old and not fit for purpose. Be wary of these rungs, they will set you back, and if you put too much weight on one of them it will break and you will fall.

You will not fall far, because you will reach out and grab something, anything to steady yourself, but you must remember falling is inevitable. Falling is what I call failing, such as a job rejection, a missed deadline, a misunderstood brief, etc. I’m going to tell you something that will sound strange to you, but not only will you fail at some point as you attempt to climb that ladder, you are going to fail, and I want you to fail.

From a young age, we are taught to believe that failure is a bad thing, that failure is the worst thing we can ever do, but I disagree. It is only when we fail that we can truly learn from our experiences. I’ve failed at this many times; missing job deadlines, not staying in touch with contacts, etc, but it’s how we deal with out failures that really matters. The trick is to go with it, so if you feel sad, allow yourself to cry, if you’re angry, then find a way to healthily express that anger.

Do what you have to do, just pick yourself up and move on with new knowledge, and safeguards to stop yourself committing the same mistake again.

Next we need to discuss money, because if you’re going into journalism for the wage, then you’re going to get a shock. We don’t make a lot of money, because journalism isn’t very well paid, and it’s getting even harder to make money from it. So, you’re going to do a lot of unpaid work in the beginning to build up your portfolio and have something concrete to show an editor. Once you have experience and once you’ve started to get pretty good and reliable, then start asking for money.

No one is going to pay you for the hell of it, you will have to prove that you are worth paying. Never undersell yourself, know your worth and know the law. There are many internships in journalism, some of them are really great, but others won’t lead anywhere; be hungry, but wise and know the law.

The current law on internships in the UK is that all interns are entitled to the National Minimum Wage, so those internships that offer travel expenses, lunch expenses, or offer expenses at the end of a three-month internship – avoid them like the plague. Your time and your future is worth so much, so again, read, be aware of your rights and stand up for yourself. Intern does not mean ‘subhuman’ never forget that.

That’s all I can say for now, I’ll see you on the ladder.

Cheers,

Trash

Life After Libel

1 Oct
Image by Tofutti break, used under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by tofutti break, used under a Creative Commons Licence

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ll probably be very familiar with my Edinburgh Fringe Festival tale of terror from last year, where I was threatened with libel by an entertainment company for writing a negative review of their show. The full story is here, if you don’t know it, or need to read it again. It’s a long story, so grab a cup of tea or something and get comfortable.

I didn’t have a great time at the Fringe last year; the run up to August was long and disappointing. I’d been unsuccessful in getting work with a publication that I’d worked for in 2010 and 2011, and my emails and applications to other publications mostly went unanswered. However, last year, instead of just being a critic, I was an editor too, and I had to deal with a couple of other issues as well. I wasn’t just managing writers, I was booking tickets, reviewing, editing and uploading reviews. I was actively solving problems. if there was an issue with a review, I had to deal with it. Fringe 2012 was my first Fringe as an editor, and it was the proverbial baptism by fire.

On the day of the libel threats it was really sunny and warm; one of those lovely Edinburgh Fringe Festival summer days. I was at home uploading reviews when the barrage of emails that culminated – quite quickly – in threats of legal action began dropping into my inbox with frightening regularity. From that day, until a few weeks after the Fringe, I found myself preoccupied with fear. “What if they take me to court?” “What if the site has to close down?” “What if I lose my house?”  “What if I never work again?” “What if the actors never work again?” “What if this is the beginning of the new McLibel?” “What if this case goes on to break the record for being the longest running libel case, ever?”

Obviously, these emails were designed to get me thinking these depressing thoughts, and despite them revealing their ignorance early on, as libel is called defamation under Scottish Law, and despite being told to ignore them, and not take any notice of their increasingly bizarre statements and accusations, I couldn’t clear my head.

I would go out to review a show, and wonder if someone from that company was sitting in the audience with me. I would go home to my computer and find their emails safely nestled in with much nicer emails from my writers and PRs. Their threats continued. They took screenshots of my Twitter account and sent them to my editor in a piss-poor attempt to discredit me. If my phone rang and I didn’t recognise the number displayed, I wouldn’t answer. What if it was them? At least once, it was. It seemed like they were everywhere, just waiting for me to slip up.

When the Fringe ended, I was so glad. The end of August meant the end of their nonsense, and I thought that I could get back to something resembling normality pretty quickly. But their emails continued sporadically, falling into my editor’s inbox whenever we thought they’d vanished for good. I was frazzled and I felt cheated; I’d missed out on my usual Fringe experience, and I was so angry. How dare they think legal threats are an appropriate reaction to a bad review? But most of all, I was exhausted. I’d gone back to my day job mid-festival, and the demands of that, coupled with the Fringe and the added issue of the libel threat hanging over my head, it was all just too much. I’d had enough.

I felt like my mind was full of cotton wool; I couldn’t feel much about anything. Announcement of a new production? Nothing. A new project at work? Nada. Try to read a book? Not a sausage. I’d go to press nights  and then stagger home and fail to get my opinion of a play in a word document. I fell behind on work and struggled to get it finished. What had been my passion began to feel like a chore.

I stopped enjoying writing. I’d been writing for three years, slowly building up contacts and creating opportunities for myself. I felt no shame emailing people I’d never met before and offering to write for their publication. I’d been so hungry to move on, to improve my work and create my dream career.

Now I wasn’t as hungry; it was like I didn’t want to write ever again. Every time I sat down at my computer, I’d find myself making excuses, procrastinating more than ever before and looking for other things to do. After all, why should I write when there is this thing called Grumpy Cat?

I lost all my confidence in my work, and writing became more and more difficult. When I went to the theatre I would sit in the stalls and feel so disconnected from what was happening on stage, even though I saw some very good pieces after the Fringe. I could see and hear everything that was going on, but it just wasn’t speaking to me, it was like I was behind a sheet of glass; I was there, but I wasn’t. And all the time there was this voice inside my head saying: “You’re not supposed to be here. This place is not for you.”

When I got home, I would sit at and stare my laptop and will the words to come; I could hear them in my head, I could see them in my mind, but as soon as I switched on my computer, they vanished, and all that was left was that voice: “What do you think you’re doing? No one reads this stuff anyway, and when they do, they’ll threaten to sue. Who do you think you are, a theatre critic?”

In an attempt to put the situation behind me, I published the blog post about the libel threats and harassment, but I never thought it would be as popular as it became. My blog was very, very new, and aside from one post about the lack of money in journalism and a few film reviews, there was nothing on it. I had no loyal readership; hardly anyone visited my blog because it was really boring.

And yet, when the post went live on that Sunday evening in September just over a year ago, it got noticed. The story quickly grew legs and scuttled across the globe, it got into all the nooks and crannies of the internet, successfully spreading my experience to like-minded people far and wide. The post was mine, the words were my own, but the story quickly became something that I had no control over, and suddenly, it was no longer mine. Which was scary, but it led to lovely messages from people from all over the world, who wanted to express their outrage, horror and similar stories. I was contacted by people offering much-needed advice, and crucially, by someone who could help put an end to the situation.

After the post went viral, I half-expected to get a pleading email from the company, begging me to take the blog post down, or maybe even an even angrier email, slamming my lack of professionalism, or something to that effect. I never did. To this day, the company have never responded to my blog post and they have never apologised for their threats, their accusations, or their own libellous statements concerning the non-existent ‘conspiracy’ that they concocted between me and the woman I called ‘Julie’ in my original post.

I’d love to say that this situation forced them to change their attitude, but from what I’ve heard about them since, and from what I’ve seen that they’ve published online, it hasn’t.

I was, and I still am, overwhelmed by the amount of support that came my way from my family, friends and even people I’d never met last year. They say that you know who your friends are in a crisis, I know who they are now, and I am still very grateful for all the support I received from them during this time.

I can’t lie; I did come very, very close to packing it all in – reviewing, editing, the lot. But one day, I got up, I fired up my laptop and I started writing. I’m still building up my confidence in my writing again, and blogging has been a great help throughout all of this. After all, the best way to become a good and confident writer is to get your head down and write, and that’s what I’m going to do.

We Need to Talk About Plagiarism

27 Sep
Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by ▲Bonard▼, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

We need to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because it exists, and to paraphrase a film critic friend of mine: “It seems like there’s a new plagiarism scandal in journalism every month.”

He’s right, it does feel like that, and from recent examples like Lianne ‘The Queen of Cut and Paste’ Spiderbaby, to Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard from WhatCulture! it feels like the journalism industry has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As a journalist, all you have is your integrity, and once that’s gone, you have nothing. You are only ever as good as your last article, you will only ever be as good as the best article that you have ever written. Plagiarism never benefits anyone because once the plagiarism is uncovered – and it will be uncovered – then the writer and their publication will lose credibility and respect.

What shocks me is when people try to stick up for the plagiariser; although nine times out of ten, these are usually fans of the writer, who don’t work within the industry, but there have been exceptions. Tim Lucas, the editor of Video Watchdog, made a very premature statement supporting Spiderbaby when her plagiarism was discovered, which he was then forced to retract when it became clear that she had in fact, plagiarised the articles that she’d written for him too.

It’s odd that when a plagiarism scandal erupts, that many editors will stand by the plagiariser despite proof of their wrongdoing. For example, in 2011, Simon Kelner, then editor of The Independent, stood by Johann Hari after evidence of plagiarism and other questionable behaviour was brought to light. Instead of being sacked, Hari was suspended and sent for ‘retraining’ in the US. He handed back his Orwell Prize, made an “evasive” public apology, but didn’t personally apologise to the writers that he had stolen from.

During his suspension, Hari decided not to return to the paper, and while both Hari and Kelner have since left The Independent, The paper’s reputation was badly damaged, just as Hari’s reputation was severely damaged by his plagiarism. So, despite Kelner standing by Hari, it was all for nothing; everyone came off badly because of his plagiarism and their failure to deal with it properly.

Obviously, an editor must support their staff, but when a staff member has plagiarised someone else’s work, then they must also protect their publication. So, why then, do some editors reveal their loyalty to a plagiariser, when a plagiariser, by definition, is incapable of thinking of anyone but themselves? In the case of WhatCulture! their initial reaction was to continue as normal by not commenting on the accusations, and continuing to publish work by both the writers in question.

A few days later, and after significant pressure, they broke their silence, saying:

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

WhatCulture! Initial Statement

Although the editors may have thought that by acknowledging the scandal, they were then dealing with it, these tweets only created more questions. What processes? What disciplinary procedures? What steps had been put in place? By not being transparent and open about what exactly they were doing, WhatCulture! were complicit in their silence; it looked like they were supporting the plagiarisers on their team over basic journalistic integrity.

Unsurprisingly, no one felt that this was good enough, and not long after, WhatCulture! released an official statement on the scandal. They apologised profusely, not just to the writers whose work was stolen, but tellingly, they also apologised to the plagiarisers for putting them under too much pressure. Additionally, the offered compensation to all the writers who had been ripped off. It was a long time coming, and while the editors were initially slow to act, they did claw back some respect.

There are two very positive lessons that we can take from these recent plagiarism scandals. The first is that for every plagiariser, there is someone, somewhere who is willing to put the time and effort to research their output and find examples of plagiarism. So, for every Lianne Spiderbaby, there is Mike White, and for every Shaun Munro and T.J. Barnard, there is Maxwell Yezpitelok, Simon Columb and Ali Gray, willing to blow the whistle, to hold critics to account and to reveal the extent of every bad journalist’s unethical practices.

The second lesson is that each time this happens, each time someone is caught plagiarising, the net tightens just a little bit more. People get angrier, editors get more wary and publications continue to crack down on this immoral and unethical behaviour. Exposing plagiarism in all its forms, whether it is uncovered in art, design, photography, film, music, journalism, poetry and academia forces us to confront it head on. It makes representatives of all these industries start to think about how they can make their respective disciplines better and more trustworthy.

In the case of journalism, the industry is under enough threat from outside forces for it to be destroyed by a series of bad journalists. As a collective we are already dealing with their being not enough jobs, little money, a lack of job security and cuts. Take a look at the new arts section from the Independent On Sunday, where it was decided that sacking all their arts critics – each of them well-respected writers with years of experience – was preferable to publishing ‘reviews’ like this.

Clearly, this attitude isn’t good enough, and when editors and publications fail to properly deal with plagiarists, it not only undermines our industry; it damns us all. Inaction will be the death of arts journalism; not online content, not a lack of advertising, but apathy. Our apathy will kill the industry.

Publishing bad writers with poor ethics and an even worse attitude is not a good idea, and editors and publishers must stand up to these people. Their inaction condones the writer’s behaviour and ensures that they will get away with it time and time again. It’s time to make a stand, to send a message to say that plagiarism will not, and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

It’s time to talk about plagiarism. We really need to talk about plagiarism. Why? Because we can’t keep letting this happen in journalism.

Trash Goes To a 4Talent Day

22 Sep
4Talent Day Image

4Talent Day Image

“Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.” – Frank Zappa

Earlier this week, I boarded the 07:30 train from Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen Street. From Glasgow Queen Street, I went straight to Buchanan Street Subway Station, where I bought a return ticket to Govan. Less than 20 minutes later, I arrived in Govan, and despite nearly falling up the escalator on my way out of the station – yes, there were witnesses – I emerged, unscathed, nervous and only slightly tired, into a cold and wet Glasgow morning at 08:45 on the dot.

I was in Govan because in August, I had applied to take part in the upcoming 4Talent Day in Glasgow. I’d filled out my application with little hope, but I told myself that after the inevitable rejection I’d know that I’d tried my best, and I could go ahead and try something else. So, when I got the email saying that my application had been successful, I nearly fell off my chair.

4Talent Days are organised by Channel 4 and are designed to support people over the age of 16 who want to get into the creative industries. The purpose of a 4Talent Day is to nurture and inspire people by holding workshops, talks and giving people at the bottom rung of the media ladder the chance to speak to those at the very top. It makes the creative industries accessible and as open as possible to people of all ages and backgrounds around the UK, and gives all attendees a taste of life in the media.

Beginning at 09:30, after registration opened at 08:45, the day began with talks by Channel 4’s Industry Talent Specialist, Priscilla Baffour, and Head of Creative Diversity, Stuart Cosgrove; a dedicated Northern Soul devotee who is perhaps better known to listeners in Scotland as one half of Radio Scotland’s Off The Ball.

Their speeches were inspiring and energising as Priscilla discussed Channel 4’s “content revolution” about how creating and publishing content is changing, the history of Channel 4 and what they look for in applicants. Stuart gave an uplifting speech about his journey from the deprived council estate of his childhood, to his love of Northern Soul and how his passion for the genre opened doors for him.

There were many different master classes available, from radio production to music journalism, pitching documentary and factual films, to personal branding and how to get started in film making. I chose the music journalism master class with Sid Smith, a well-respected music journalist, and a man with a real passion for King Crimson.

While I have a lot of experience of writing about the arts, I’ve only focussed on theatre and film, and I’ve been thinking about music journalism for some time. However, despite writing some very brief album reviews at the beginning of my career – I think they were around 100 words – I don’t feel confident writing about music, and I want to learn how to write about music and more importantly, how to write about music with authority.

Sid was a fantastic teacher, and as well as discussing music journalism with us, magazine circulation figures, pitching, interviewing and the music which makes us cry (mine is ‘Don’t Speak’ by No Doubt). He also brought a room full of aspiring music journalists to shame when he asked when was the last time we bought a music magazine, and collectively, we looked at our feet. He also had us listen to a piece of music called ‘Joyful Reunion’ by Sweet Billy Pilgrim before phoning the songwriter, Tim Elsenburg, and having some of us ask him questions about the song there and then.

Sid gave us all a lot of advice, and he sums it up very well in his own blog post about the 4Talent Day in Glasgow. But I would add that the clearest piece of advice that Sid, and all the other speakers gave on the day was that young creatives need to have two things: discipline and persistence.

So, if an editor doesn’t email back within a few days, call them, introduce yourself and tell them what you do in 20-25 words. Research who you’re contacting and tell them what makes you different. Also, take what you’re doing seriously, be nice, polite and develop habits. Habits and discipline will keep you going, as well building a network of contacts. As Philip Edgar-Jones, the Head of Entertainment at Sky Arts put it, “Be persistent, but patient.”

The day was so inspiring, and as well as learning a lot, and getting some really good advice, I met a number of interesting people, that I’m hoping to keep in touch with, I gave out many, many business cards and I got lots of business cards back in return. But what the 4Talent Day was really good at, was making the creative industry seem more open, and more accessible than it ever has before. There was no mention of degrees or specialist qualifications, and it made you feel like you could have that career that you’ve always dreamed of. It made you feel that there are people out there that are interested in your story, and what you have to offer.

After a long but wonderful day, I headed back to Govan Subway Station – avoiding tripping on the escalator this time – and headed back to Queen Street Station. Once there, I boarded the 18:15 train back to Edinburgh Waverley, and as soon as I arrived in Edinburgh, I got my hands on the first music magazines I’d bought in nine years; Q and MOJO, before I heading home to read, research and think about my next step.

I would highly recommend a 4Talent Day to any young creative, and who knows, for me, it could be the very beginning of a brand new adventure.

KNUT

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