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A conflict of interest that brings integrity of criticism into doubt

It seems obvious that a publication that claims to offer independent critical opinion on a production can’t also serve as that show’s producer. But this is just what Time Out is doing, writes Alistair Smith

Penny Arcade with the cats of Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

How would you feel if you discovered that an independent theatre critic was also an investor in a show that they had awarded five stars?

How would you feel as an audience member who had bought tickets for the show on the basis of what you believed was a reviewer’s impartial and honestly held opinion? How would you feel as a performer or director of a different production who had been reviewed by said critic but didn’t have the good fortune to also have him as an investor?

Or let’s try this: what would you think if you discovered that The Stage had been acting as a producer or co-producer of some of the shows that it is reviewing — apparently independently — within these very pages?

I suspect you, as a theatregoer or theatre professional would be angry. And rightly so. It is a clear conflict of interests.

Now, The Stage has not been acting as a theatre producer. Nor — as far as I’m aware — have any of the members of the Critics’ Circle been reviewing shows in which they have a financial stake.

Clearly, you can’t have someone reviewing a production — or publishing a review of a production — in which they have such a clear vested interest. It would be completely unethical.

The foundation of all forms of criticism or consumer advice is the idea that the advice is independent: that the person or publication offering you their opinion on a particular product does not have a vested interest in selling you that product. And while newspapers and magazines — including The Stage — have long promoted commercial events strands, which they advertise, the coverage is not positioned to ticket-buying readers as the impartial critical opinion of an independent reviewer.

Consumer magazine Which? would have its own questions to answer if it were discovered that the products that had been topping its in-house tests were being made by a manufacturing off-shoot of the magazine. Likewise, if it turned out that the Michelin Guide was investing in the restaurants to which it was awarding its coveted stars.

So, when I learned that Time Out — London’s leading listings and reviews magazine — had started acting as a producer of live entertainment, I had a few concerns as to what this might mean for its critical coverage.

Surely, I reasoned, Time Out would not be able to carry on reviewing - or passing critical judgment on - the shows that it had involvement in through its Time Out Live subsidiary - billed as “the events-producing arm and successful brand extension to the Time Out Group”.

So I was shocked when I opened up a recent issue of Time Out to see that Penny Arcade’s cabaret show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! was recommended in not one, but two of Time Out’s Critics’ Choice lists.

Time Out Critics' Choice excerpts

I haven’t seen the show, so I have no idea whether either of these listings is deserved. But, I do know that Time Out Live is a co-producer on Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!. I know this because I have seen a press release for the show, but reading the Critics’ Choice lists - which, remember, are what Time Out’s independent critics recommend above all other shows that the magazine’s readers spend their money on - there is absolutely no mention of this fact. Separately, there is a mention in the Time Out listings that the show is ‘presented by Time Out’. But this is hardly clear to readers: Time Out is certainly not saying ‘we have a vested financial interest in you buying tickets to this show, for which we are a producer’.

Time Out is a well-respected company, which has developed a reputation since its launch in 1968 as a reliable, fair, well-informed and (crucially) independent source of information and opinion on a whole raft of subjects from hotels to restaurants to theatre shows. It is trusted and respected.

Its decision to use that position of trust and respect to promote something in which it has a vested financial interest is disgraceful because it is a flagrant abuse of that position of trust, but it is also idiotic because, in doing so, it is flushing its hard-won reputation down the toilet.

Penny Arcade might be a great show. It might deserve its plaudits and position on the two Critics’ Choice lists. It might deserve the description of “unmissable” that it is given by Time Out on its website. But the questions remain of whether it would have got all this attention and focus had it not been a Time Out Live show.

In a feature on the show earlier this year (yes, they’ve been giving it rather a lot of coverage) Time Out does - almost as an aside - mention that it is a co-producer on the production, in the final paragraph of the feature. I’m not convinced this is enough. Indeed, it falls a long way short of the qualifications that The Times runs whenever it discusses Rupert Murdoch or his various companies.

And all this is not just unfair on the readers of Time Out. It is unfair on every other show that is reviewed (or indeed not reviewed) by the publication.

A Time Out review or Critics’ Choice listing holds a great deal of sway in the Off-West End and fringe sectors. Thanks to its recent shift into producing and acting as a ticket agent, there appears to be a perfectly plausible situation whereby Time Out could be producing a show, selling the tickets for it and then advising audiences to go and see it through its ‘independent’ editorial.

If the magazine is going to continue to use its power as an independent voice within the sector to promote shows in which it holds a financial interest, then that is a deeply worrying proposition for anyone working in the industry without the benefit of Time Out Live’s investment.

4 Comments

Hello there – this is Andrzej from the Time Out theatre section.

I think the above article probably raises some good points about a gray area re: our vast and sprawling organisation that probably needs to be clarified, and hopefully somebody more connected to TO Live can do just that.

From a theatre section perspective, I'd just like to point out a couple of things.

One, despite the fact that the above article manages to shoehorn the words 'review' and 'reviewer' in 12 times – and strongly suggests that Time Out may have given the Penny Arcade show a five star review – this is in no way the case, as we deliberately didn't review Penny Arcade for the exact reason that it was a Time Out Live production; we have never reviewed a TO Live production.

It's also worth pointing out that the above critics' choices are from the cabaret and gay sections of the magazine, where critics' choice isn't based upon review (as ours is) but preview. It's not really for me to speak for the respective editors re: bestowing critics' choice, but I don't doubt that both of them were motivated by genuine enthusiasm for the show rather than a desire to prop up another arm of the organisation.

As I say, there is a grey area here and it's probably a good idea to de-grey the area, but the article's repeated suggestion that there have been reviews of Time Out Live shows published by Time Out are off the mark.

Very good of Andrzej to respond to my blog - and in such good humour. My criticism is not of Time Out's reviewers - but of the organisation at large.
And while I'm very glad to hear that Time Out did not review the show, it has certainly passed critical opinion on it. Listing it in two Critics' Choice lists - in my mind - essentially constitutes reviewing the show, in that an opinion on its merit has been expressed by the publication. If Which? listed a hoover as a 'best buy' it would not turn round and then say it hadn't reviewed the hoover.
Likewise, the posting about the show on the Time Out website (http://www.timeout.com/london/cabaret/event/250515/1232495/penny-arcade-bitch-dyke-faghag-whore) under the heading 'Time Out says' reads rather like a review to me and I suspect to most punters.

I think Time Out is an excellent publication a would always buy a copy on a visit to London (I live in Manchester), I trust the reviews and opinions to be impartial and would say that TO has built its reputation on this principle, so I am disappointed to hear them favourably promoting productions which have staff involvement and Andrzej can dress it up any way he likes but these shows should be treated separately in TO due to the conflict of interest.
Please sort this out TO as your reputation is too good to squander.

This is just an extention of what TO have been doing for years. If you enter into a ticket offer with TO your show automatically becomes recommended, thus increasing TO commission income from the offer tickets sold.

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