George Osborne, the Evening Standard's Editor in absentia. Photo by Leon Neal / Getty Images
On Music

Who’d want to be a critic?

Criticism has died at London’s newspaper

Arriving as assistant editor of the London Evening Standard in March 2002, I dismissed nine critics and hired 12. This caused a bit of a stir since critics were held to be sacrosanct, but I felt the field was in need of a shakeout with far too many old-timers recycling idées fixes and few signs of renewal.

Not to mention the vested indulgences. One dear man informed me that it was his right to have an after-show dinner with a glass of wine on my budget, the better to digest a performance (as it were) before he reviewed it. Another confessed he could hardly bear to hang around for the second half of a concert. A third had to be regularly rewritten by the night desk.

The art critic Brian Sewell, a sacred monster, proclaimed himself one afternoon to be above “mere journalism”. I reminded him bluntly what paid his bills. Word flashed round the newsroom that I had sacked him. Ten minutes later, Brian whispered in my ear: “Might we have lunch?” We did, and he quietly accepted that I was bringing in someone else to review the Young British Artists (YBAs), whom Brian held in contempt.

Ever since its eighteenth-century origins in the London coffeehouses of Swift, Addison and Defoe, criticism has been a fragile organism. An opinion is no more than a bubble in the air and we would all be much the poorer if some spoilsport went round pricking it. Aware of my responsibilities to preserve the bubble, I increased review rates and allowed the rumbling tummy to carry on charging his dinners. Picking, training, editing and sustaining a critic is one of the toughest challenges in journalism and I am proud to have helped quite a few of them to spice up the public conversation.

ENO is inflicting a calculated insult. Critics will have to work twice as hard not to show their anger at being made to feel unwanted

Which is why my heart sank twice this past summer at a pair of onslaughts on the genre. The Evening Standard, now owned by a Russian minigarch and a Saudi oil barrel, edited in absentia by the Tory politician George Osborne, is piling up losses. Its last two theatre critics were told they had to go because the paper can no longer afford them. Reviewing the West End was assigned to a chap on the features desk whose skill is writing celebrity interviews. He is not a critic. Criticism has died at London’s paper and there are none to mourn it as the freesheet piles up unread at Underground stations. Barely had this loss sunk in than English National Opera, a company in deep doldrums, invited “10 individuals from the general public” to volunteer for a scheme that would grant them one free ticket for 10 productions in exchange for a review that they would post on ENO’s website within 48 hours. ENO, in other words, was looking for amateur critics of no experience or substance to publish tame views on its own site, views which could then be weaponised to counter the reasoned, sometimes hostile judgment of seasoned, independent critics.

There is so much wrong — morally wrong — with this rat-brained scheme that it would take twice my allotted space to accommodate the offence it gives to anyone who holds that criticism is vital to democracy. Let’s start with the free seats. ENO, which has more than a quarter of its tickets unsold during a season, has elected to take seats away from professional critics and give them to newbies.

It is a convention, almost universally observed, that critics are entitled to a pair of seats, whether to attenuate their existential loneliness — and there is nothing lonelier than hating a show that all around you adore, or vice versa — or to allow them to run a view past a smart companion before submitting it to print. Critics arrive in pairs. The writer is there to observe, reflect and fashion an opening line, the companion wards off evil spirits in the crush bar.

By withdrawing the critics’ second ticket, ENO is inflicting a calculated injury and insult. Critics will have to work twice as hard not to show their anger at being made to feel unwanted, which may well be ENO’s malign intent.

This is a company that has long lost its nominal purpose of training English singers and touring them around the nation. It bumbles on with cheap Baltic singers in half-baked productions. Over the past decade, ENO has reeled from one disastrous chieftain to the next. It says much for present boss Stuart Murphy, formerly of Sky Arts, that he makes his predecessors seem reasoned and adept. Murphy has lately been spouting more hot air than a malfunctioning geyser in Iceland. ENO’s CEO says he wants opera to be “more like Love Island”, a television show where young things snog in thongs. He has denounced ENO’s chorus as “shockingly white” and he hates the theatre’s Victorian doors, claiming that new audiences find them hard to open (just push, dears). He also maintains you don’t have to know anything about opera in order to run an opera house.

Given ENO’s turnover rate, Murphy may not be around by the time these words appear, but the damage of his thoughtless actions is already evident and the consequences may be lasting. For the first time since Joseph Stalin commandeered the front page of Pravda to publish his disobliging review of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk, a state-subsidised organ is proposing to publish write-in reviews of its product and then to use those reviews to counter and crush independent thought. Consider the impact on young critics. Who would want to make a career reviewing theatre for reputable media when your professional opinion will be assaulted by officially-boosted dilettantes? ENO’s initiative is a pernicious subversion of arts criticism. It must be stopped.

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