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Anne-Marie Quigg and Piers Jackson: Abuse of any kind has no place in a modern arts organisation

Mike Bartlett’s play Bull, which examines bullying and harassment in the workplace, was first staged at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton Mike Bartlett’s play Bull, which examines bullying and harassment in the workplace, was first staged at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Six years after the publication of Bullying in the Arts, little has changed. Anne-Marie Quigg and Piers Jackson say the onus is on those with ‘charismatic authority’ at cultural institutions to lead change


The literature on bullying, emotional abuse and sexual harassment in the cultural sector has not grown substantially in the six years since the publication of the book Bullying in the Arts.

It would be encouraging if this was because levels of emotional abuse in cultural organisations have been considerably reduced. Sadly, we know from recent allegations and incidents, such as those concerning Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford-Clark, that this is not the case.

It’s more likely that mistreatment goes unreported partly because of the precarious work environment in many artistic institutions, partly because people working in the cultural industries are often driven by a passionate sense of vocation and partly because the concept of deferring to ‘creative genius’ prevails. As in 2011, there is likely still a high level of bullying, harassment and emotional abuse in the cultural sector, compared with prisons, the armed forces and medical professionals.

There has been some progress. In 2013 two separate pieces of new research were published in the UK. One is the study commissioned by the BBC, entitled the Respect at Work Review, which is often referred to as the ‘Rose Review’.

Dinah Rose QC and her team interviewed 500 members of staff at the Corporation and uncovered allegations indicating that bullying, sexual harassment and abuse were widespread. They noted when investigating the quality of training offered to staff: “There is currently very little focus on the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, bullying or harassment.”

The team made a number of recommendations – however, in January 2014 the National Union of Journalists criticised the BBC for failing to implement them. It was not enough for the BBC to say it was bringing in managers from other departments and divisions to investigate allegations, it said, “an outside body is needed”.

The other significant piece of research in 2013 was a study by the Federation of Entertainment Unions, led by Cathy John, a senior lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth. At that year’s FEU conference, she presented the findings that bullying, discrimination and harassment were worse than in other sectors where similar research had taken place. She had collected and analysed data about abusive behaviour in the workplace from more than 4,000 FEU members working in theatre, film, television, journalism, digital media, radio and film.

At its annual conference in 2014, Equity unanimously passed the motion: “Bullying contaminates professional working relationships and the failure to address it harms individuals, workplace teams and the reputation of the arts and entertainment sector.”

Since then, the issue of tackling bullying and harassment at work has gained more support among Equity members and this year’s conference passed a motion to appoint a member of staff with responsibility for addressing bullying, harassment and mental health issues in the theatre world.

There have been developments outside the UK. In 2015, researchers Bard Kleppe and Sigrid Royseng investigated sexual harassment among actors in Norwegian theatres. The findings revealed that sexual harassment is more prevalent in theatre environments than in other areas of work in Norway.

A series of qualitative interviews uncovered some of the risk factors that shed light on this high prevalence, related to the perpetrators’ position within the power base of the theatre world and designated as “charismatic authority”. This is similar to bullying as a result of “artistic temperament and creative genius” in Bullying in the Arts and the disclosure that certain individuals within the BBC, notably among those classed as ‘talent’, were often deemed to be “the untouchables”.

The Canadian Actors’ Equity Association undertook a survey of its membership in 2015 to determine the extent and type of harassment and bullying in the workplace. Nearly 50% of respondents said they had been subjected to inappropriate behaviour. The national council then undertook a comprehensive review of the bylaws and policies covering unprofessional behaviour.

Working with a specialist in harassment issues, it instigated a national anti-harassment campaign, Not in Our Space, supplying posters for workplaces, brochures, bookmarks, stickers and a revamped complaints procedure. All staff members were trained to deal with complaint calls and several senior staff members received advanced training in counselling individuals who had experienced workplace harassment. CAEA is currently rolling out the programme across the country, it said, promoting a “no tolerance” stand on damaging and inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Worldwide, a number of cases of bullying and sexual abuse have also come to light in the field of music education. Musicologist Ian Pace points to examples in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US.

In 2015, the pseudonymous Flyman in The Stage highlighted behaviour frequently witnessed backstage at UK theatres. Tantrums by actors, extreme ‘practical jokes’ among members of the technical crew and directors staging showdowns in order to humiliate assistants were commonplace, it seemed.

While the pressures and stresses of the workplace were acknowledged, they were regarded as no excuse for the behaviour. Instead, Flyman called for a more “consistent and grown-up” response. It would appear we haven’t yet achieved it.

There are some encouraging signs of progress though, as some creative organisations are fighting back against emotional abuse. A variety of programmes and campaigns to address issues such as bullying and harassment are using arts activities. Projects such as these should be applauded.

Organisations include Actionwork in Weston-super-Mare, which is currently on a UK tour with an anti-bullying roadshow, using film, music and theatre. Theatre Centre in London has a track record of presenting issue-based material for young audiences, including on topics such as racism and rape.

Actors Pat Abernethy and Dave Marsden of Isosceles Theatre Company work with consultant Ashley Callaghan Training, engaging in role play with employees from a range of businesses. They explore workplace bullying and harassment, encouraging people to examine their behaviour and challenge accepted norms.

Very little has changed when it comes to identifying, signalling and dealing with abuse in cultural organisations

The new case studies we have gathered this year tell the same distressing stories all over again: arts workers victimised by colleagues, or humiliated and intimidated by bosses, often eventually diagnosed with mental health issues.

So despite all the research, the campaigns and the promises to take action, very little has changed when it comes to identifying, signalling and dealing with abuse in cultural organisations. Our newest research uncovers inappropriate behaviour in museums and it doesn’t make for cheerful reading.

We appeal to all those with “charismatic authority” in the cultural, entertainment and broadcasting sectors to make change happen by championing measures to deal with abuse of every kind, including bullying and sexual harassment. It’s well past the time to put your house in order.

Anne-Marie Quigg and Piers Jackson are independent researchers and writers who also specialise in investigating bullying and harassment in the cultural industries. Anne-Marie Quigg is the author of the 2011 book Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power

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