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Index on Censorship chief: show cancellations have set a ‘dangerous precedent’

Theatre 2016, the Arts Theatre, London. Photo: Alex Brenner Theatre 2016, the Arts Theatre, London. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Julia Farrington, head of arts at Index on Censorship, has raised concerns that the cancellation of recent shows because of their content has set a “dangerous precedent” in the sector.

Presenting a provocation ahead of a panel on Meeting Ethical and Reputational Challenges at the Theatre 2016 conference at the Arts Theatre in London, she discussed the cancellation of pieces such as Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B installation, which was met with protests in London and cancelled on police advice despite being presented without incident elsewhere.

The cancellation of controversial work, she said, denied “the right of the artist to express it, the organisation’s right to present it, the audience’s right to view it, and those who protest against it the right to say how much they hate it”.

“This new chapter in the policing of controversial arts sets alarm bells ringing and sets a dangerous precedent for foreclosing any work that the police don’t approve of,” she said.

She highlighted how going against police advice could be problematic for all involved and discussed the implications for artists and organisations if they continued to present work which had been contested by the police.

“An organisation also has duties to its employees and members of the public. It may be liable for unlawful acts by third parties and failure to follow police advice could lead to arrest,” she said.

She said that “both self-censorship and direct censorship are the undesirable outcomes,” of this current climate, and claimed that “the ideal scenario to come out of a dialogue with police would be a space open to challenging art and to protest”.

“Both are about freedom of expression,” she said.

She stressed that often the work subject to such scrutiny is about race and religion and she went on to cite the different responses to the National Youth Theatre’s production of Homegrown and the National Theatre’s production of Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State by Nicholas Kent and Gillian Slovo.

“The majority of work that has been foreclosed are by BAME artists,” she said.

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