Whistleblowing and the arts

The headline in the Arts Professional blog post (issue #257) reads:

The subsidised arts sector lives in fear of the hands that feed it, says Liz Hill.

If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do. The post describes how UK artists are afraid to speak up against bad practice on the part of those who hold the purse strings, for fear of being branded troublemakers and being denied funding in the future.  This is a very real fear, and very understandable. It is the same fear that applies to those making a complaint in the workplace, or being asked to uphold a complaint by a colleague – will it cost me my job/my reputation/my livelihood?

 Liz Hill ponders the absence of whistleblowers in the banking profession and in the subsidised arts, and this set me thinking about how important it is that people are able to speak out about injustices without fear of retribution. Indeed, the UK Equality Act 2010 makes some provision for protection in law when an employee blows the whistle on an employer. Technically, the employer is not permitted to take any action that might be detrimental to the employee as a result. I say ‘technically’ because, as is apparent from adult bullying cases, action can be covert and, as was demonstrated in a tribunal last year, an employer cannot be held vicariously liable should other employees decide to victimise a whistleblower.

There’s little incentive, then, to speak out. Yet where would the world be without those who do so? What about uncovering injustice, tyranny, corruption and bullying? What about the whistleblowers who have exposed serious misconduct by governments, scams, price-fixing, false claims? Or those who have uncovered the companies manufacturing cigarettes containing excessive nicotine levels that cause addiction, dangerous prescription painkillers and illegally marketing unapproved drugs?

Cultural sector issues cannot be as important as these examples, nor are they life and death matters, you might say. Yet worldwide, political action by artists is viewed and feared as a form of whistleblowing:

Ai Weiwei‘s investigation into Chinese Government cover-ups and corruption resulted in his abduction and confinement;

 Two members of Pussy Riot are destined to spend their prison sentences in a notorious penal colony near Moscow for using their art to protest about Putin’s corrupt regime;

Belarus Free Theatre used creativity to promote freedom from a dictatorial regime – members have been harshly punished and persecuted, including  losing their jobs at state-run theatres.

In essence, whistleblowers speak out for justice and human rights at some level – no matter what the context. Whether the perpetrator of a wrong is an individual, a team, an organisation, a local authority, a national agency, a government, a multinational corporation or systemic inequity and exploitation, the role of whistleblower is at the heart of achieving fair play. For this reason, they should be highly valued, never vilified.

So, I have to say that Scottish artists protesting about the actions of their principal funder, Creative Scotland, and members of the public like Carol Lee, calling for an investigation into Arts Council England’s handling of Artists Taking the Lead in Yorkshire, deserve a fair hearing. They deserve to get their questions answered in full and should command our respect for speaking out about the injustices they perceive.


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