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December 02 2009

How Boris lost his shine | Dave Hill

The mayor of London's quest to land a friend and old ally a cushy job looks worryingly like cronyism

A chap can push his luck too far, even when his name is Boris Johnson. You know the one I mean: clever, funny, a bit accident-prone and sort of sexy if he's your kind of blond. He gets away with things, too, and does so in a knowing way that confirms his disarming roguery. But the shine can come off even the most dazzling chancer when his cavalier style starts to look like arrogance, and his disrespect for boundaries like plain old opportunism. Mayor Boris of London is in danger of sliding that way.

Just 18 months into his term he is routinely accused of drift, ineptitude and attention-seeking – while at the same time dodging scrutiny. To this list some now add that he is taking the wrong sort of care of an old friend. A fat file of correspondence has been published on the Greater London Authority website following a request by one of Johnson's Labour opponents. It relates to his dauntless quest to get a friend and erstwhile media ally a nice little quango job. The story told by the file's 660 pages contains pregnant gaps and many ambiguities but the clear central narrative is of a political machine working hard to make what could easily be taken for classic cronyism look respectable.

The alleged crony in question is Veronica Wadley who, as editor of the Evening Standard during the 2008 mayoral election campaign, daily waged a zealous war against Johnson's opponent Ken Livingstone. In some ways, it did her no good: under a new owner the first large act of her successor was to woo lost readers by launching an advertising campaign apologising for the previous regime. Johnson, though, has remained a Wadley fan.

In late April this year, the couple lunched. Afterwards, Wadley wrote Johnson a note, daintily seeking his blessing to apply for the post of chair of Arts Council England's London region which he had "mentioned" while they dined. Three people presided at her subsequent first interview. One was Munira Mirza, Johnson's culture adviser. The other two were ACE chair Liz Forgan (who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian) and Sir David Durie, a former governor of Gibraltar, who provided independent oversight.

Durie, as was later made clear to him, was a panellist without a vote. But he knows what he saw, and didn't like what happened next. Both he and Forgan considered Wadley to lack the necessary arts background, and claim that she interviewed markedly less well than three other candidates before her. Both claim it was agreed at the end of the interview meeting that those three, and not Wadley, would go forward to a second, final interview with the mayor. Both made clear their dismay on learning a few days later that, in fact, the mayor intended interviewing Wadley anyway at the expense of one of the other three.

Johnson later consented to seeing the elbowed candidate too, but required little time to make his final choice. Wadley was the last of the four he saw. Her appointment with him, witnessed only by a senior GLA official, was for 3.30pm on 24 July. A letter informing her that she was the mayor's pick was being drafted by 5.15pm on the same day. The saga didn't end there. Johnson needed culture secretary Ben Bradshaw's approval of his choice. After consulting Forgan, Bradshaw declined to oblige. Johnson's riposte has been to start a rerun of the whole process, scheduling it to end handily close to an expected change of government and surely heartened by shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt's indication that he, unlike Bradshaw, wouldn't prevent Johnson from getting his way. The job was re-advertised on Monday. Aside from Wadley, it seems that only rejection addicts need apply.

As the correspondence file shows, many around the mayor have striven to ensure that the jolly buccaneer they serve has acted legally and in accordance with written protocol. Mirza has provided a different version of what that first interview meeting concluded. Johnson has told Forgan that were it not for his goodwill she wouldn't have been involved in the first place, and emphasised that the ACE London job is – thanks to the Labour government, by the way – a mayoral appointment, after all.

But the real story here is that Johnson has exploited the process's potential for being reduced to a farce, and done so in order that it generates the outcome he desires – no matter how unfair to others that might be. He's shown no flicker of embarrassment about this. Neither has Wadley. Same old Tories. Same old inflated sense of entitlement. If I were David Cameron, I'd have a word.


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November 06 2009

Bring the curtain down on the Ben and Boris show | Charlotte Higgins

For the sake of our cultural life, politicians like Bradshaw and Johnson should leave political drama to the arts

Art and politics have always been, and always will be, locked in a complicated and often uncomfortable dance, from Velázquez's double-edged depiction of Pope Innocent X to Mark Wallinger's Turner prize-winning State Britain – a meticulous recreation of Brian Haw's Parliament Square peace camp.

But politics and art have now become entangled in a manner at best unedifying, at worst damaging, to cultural life.

It started last month when a newspaper ran a leaked letter from Liz Forgan, the chair of Arts Council England, to Ben Bradshaw, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. (Full disclosure: Forgan also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian.) In it she stated her opposition to the appointment by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, of the former editor of the London Evening Standard Veronica Wadley as chair of the London office of Arts Council England, saying that Wadley was "manifestly less qualified than three of her competitors". Bradshaw vetoed Wadley, whose newspaper was a supporter of Johnson's mayoral campaign, on the grounds that the appointment contravened the Nolan rules on standards in public life – in short, that Johnson was trying to insert a crony.

If you ever assumed the arts were a political backwater, think again: this has become a half-comic, half-tragic row that has revealed deep partisan faultlines and jagged party-political rifts.

Johnson was next to rush into correspondence, accusing Bradshaw of leaking Forgan's letter during the Conservative conference, and of vetoing Wadley on political grounds. She was, he said, a credible candidate – indeed, the only woman candidate. Bradshaw, in turn, wrote to David Cameron, complaining about a contravention of Nolan principles. And last week Forgan wrote to the Guardian to say that she had opposed Wadley not because of her politics, but purely on the grounds of her qualifications for the role. She also stated: "The mayor's choice was not a name the interviewing panel agreed should go forward to him for consideration."

Amid this flurry of letter-writing, bitter political enmities have been flushed out. Forgan, who occupies a key public role with Arts Council England, appears distinctly out of favour with the Conservatives: while publicly praising her as a distinguished public servant, in private they suggest she is too bound up with Bradshaw, and brand her a "leftie". Bradshaw, meanwhile, in a speech to the Progress Labour group on Monday, even claimed that the Tories are ready to oust Forgan should they win the next election; and in his letter to Cameron urged him to "withdraw this threat" to her.

Bradshaw has proved a loose cannon. The wildest claim in his Progress speech concerned the play Enron, whose run at the Royal Court Theatre in London finishes tomorrow. He said: "I saw Enron last week and the idea that a Tory patsy running the London Arts Council would find money to fund a play like Enron – forget it." Leaving aside the undistinguished phrasing ("Tory patsy") this is an unhelpful claim – Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative shadow, had not only seen the play but had written to congratulate the Royal Court's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, on the production.

The unpleasant scene before us is of the incumbent political establishment slugging it out with that which is itching to succeed it. Most of us will feel satisfied to leave them to their own devices. Bradshaw said in his Progress speech: "We need a few more luvvies to be jumping up and down about [the Arts Council appointment], because that is not happening at the moment." What he is failing to see is that most "luvvies" (a slighting word that will not endear him to the artistic community) will conclude that the way to navigate this ugly scene is to edge past it as quietly as possible.

But there are losers in all this. The most obvious is Arts Council London.Johnson has announced that the recruitment for the organisation's chair will be re-run from scratch. The process is now so discredited that one wonders who will put themselves up for this £7,000-a-year post. The other candidates were Tim Marlow, the exhibitions director at the White Cube gallery; the media investor Patrick McKenna; and Nicholas Snowman, the former general director of the Southbank Centre. They would require superhuman levels of patience and fortitude to put themselves through applying for the post a second time.

The second loser is the reputation of Arts Council England as a whole, the founding principles of which state that it must operate at arm's length from government – to provide a buffer between artists and politicians, protecting the arts from direct political interference. It is true that this buffer zone will always be somewhat porous. Look in detail at, say, the recently announced commissions for the Arts Council-funded Cultural Olympiad scheme, Artists Taking the Lead, and you will see how precisely the chosen projects elide with soft-political cultural buzzwords such as "participation" and "public engagement" – and it's a matter of taste whether one thinks that a good or a bad thing.

Nonetheless, the arm's length principle has essentially worked since its establishment six decades ago. It is now at risk. The London chair is the only such Arts Council post to be appointed by a political figure (a concession given to the former mayor, Ken Livingstone). It is time for the recruitment process to be brought back in line with the other regional chairs, who are appointed by the Arts Council itself without political involvement. It is also a matter of regret that Forgan, who has been welcomed by the arts world as Arts Council chair since taking up her role in January, has been swept into a political row.

The most important potential losers are the arts, and artists. Lucy Prebble's Enron is, mercifully, too robust a production to be dented by having been drawn into this kerfuffle; a lesser enterprise could easily have been diminished. In his speech on Monday, Bradshaw said – paraphrasing Jennie Lee, arts minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s – that "the job of government in culture and the arts is to create the climate for them to flourish, and to secure the funds, and then to step back and let them get on with it". It is time for all the politicians involved in this debacle to follow her advice.


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November 03 2009

'Luvvies' urged to defend BBC from Tories

Culture secretary warns of threat to arts sector's independence and encroaching influence of Rupert Murdoch

Britain's cultural leaders are sleepwalking into a Conservative election victory that will threaten the BBC's independence and the funding of controversial political plays such as Enron, the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, has warned.

In a speech to a Labour audience, he said Tory culture policy was totally aligned with the commercial interests of Rupert Murdoch's News International and predicted the central tenet of British cultural policy – the arm's length relationship between the arts and government – is about to be swept away.

Bradshaw said: "We need a few more luvvies to be jumping up and down about it because that is not happening at the moment. I am trying to provoke them into doing it."

He warned of the impact of David Cameron's media policy, especially on the BBC, and the extent to which the Tory leader had followed the commercial interests of Murdoch's empire.

"There are far too many people sleepwalking towards the next election, too many people thinking lazily it might have to be time for a change without realising you cannot have change to the Conservatives without negative consequences," Bradshaw said.

He used his address to Labour pressure group Progress to claim that the Conservative pledge "to tear up the multi-annual charter and licence fee represented an unprecedented assault on the BBC's independence that no previous government, not even Margaret Thatcher, had contemplated".

He added: "We should be hearing far more noise from the BBC's supporters about these brazen threats to its independence."

He pointed out Cameron had called for communications regulator Ofcom to be dismembered at the very moment it was looking at a complaint from a number of companies about Sky's dominance of sport and film on pay television. Similarly, he said, Cameron had backed Murdoch's call for an end to impartiality in broadcast news as current affairs progresses to new platforms.

Bradshaw said lifting the duty to impartiality "would pave the way for a UK version of Fox News". The Sun's recent decision to back Cameron was, in this light, a purely commercial decision, designed by Murdoch to protect himself from a strong Ofcom, he argued.

He also claimed the independence of Arts Council England was threatened by shadow ministers and Boris Johnson, the London mayor. Johnson is determined to appoint former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley as chair of the London Arts Council in preference to the three shortlisted candidates.

Bradshaw said he was "amazed there has not been more uproar about this in the artistic and cultural world. The arm's length principle goes back decades. It would appear they are showing absolutely no regard for it whatsoever, which would be devastating for the credibility of the quality of the arts.

"I saw Enron last week and the idea that a Tory patsy running the London Arts Council would find money to fund a play like Enron – forget it."

Bradshaw said Johnson was under a legal duty to fill the post of Arts Council England's chair for London, but seemed intent on delaying an appointment until after the general election. He claimed the Conservatives' shadow ministers "have said some pretty unacceptable things about Liz Forgan [the current Arts Council chairwoman] amounting to threats about her position if there is a Tory government".

Bradshaw's remarks appeared to represent a softening of his recent anti-BBC rhetoric. He has been sharply critical of the BBC's governance structure and its expansionist tendencies, but said that in recent weeks "senior management at the top level have become more reflective and more self-critical about what they do".

He said the current BBC review of its journalism was likely to end with "a rededication to some of its traditional commitment to high-quality journalism, and an end to the pack mentality that has marked much of its output".

Bradshaw also predicted "an almighty row" when Ofcom completes its review, due shortly, of the sporting events that should be broadcast free to air.

In other remarks, Bradshaw ruled out statutory regulation of the press, but said the new Press Complaints Commission chairwoman Baroness Buscombe could hardly be less active in the role than her predecessor Christopher Meyer.

He said new digital phenomena such as Twitter could represent "a massive democratisation of the ability to affect public commentary", pointing out that the PCC received a record number of complaints about a Daily Mail article by Jan Muir on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.

"It shows that if people feel they are being lied to, you do have more comeback," he said.


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