When Media Turns on the Arts

This past summer, The Toronto Sun published a series of articles damning the Summerworks festival for producing a play that “glorified terrorists”.  They published three articles on the subject (1, 2, 3) without ever having seen the play.  The crux of their anger was that the Summerworks festival received funding from the federal government, and how dare this festival accept funds to produce a play celebrating people who want to destroy our way of life. After the play opened it was revealed that the play was not what they said it was.  The Toronto Star reviewed the play and had to acknowledge the furor in its review, said that the play was “definitely not a play that supports or romanticizes terrorism” but did say that it wasn’t a very good play.

The Sun had apparently been so successful in stirring up outrage about the play, that the Star’s review spent half of its article space debunking the Sun’s claims.  In the end, as the Star’s Richard Ouzounian points out, since the funding for Summerworks isn’t earmarked for specific plays, and really only goes towards the rental of the theatre, the Sun was making a big deal out of what amounted to $850 (The Torontoist blog has a good rundown of the timeline of the whole “controversy” if you’re interested).

Then Summerworks ends, the play is reveals to be not very good, and the Sun is revealed to have some pretty shoddy fact-checking and ethics.  Story over, right?

Apparently not.  Out of nowhere, the Sun has revived its attack on the Summerworks festival, so far with two articles in the last two days (1,2).  Once again, they are going after Summerworks about their Federal funding, and continue to do so based on their having produced Homegrown last year.

I ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Why now?  Why the renewed attack on this festival of new plays?
  2. The Sun is not a paper that speaks to me.  Their opinions hold little interest.  So why does this enrage me so?

The answer to the first question is likely that Funding deadlines have passed, and the festival’s funding has been renewed.  The fact that Summerworks applied after the deadline and yet still received funding seems to be the thing they are attacking.  So, their renewed attack is merely one of opportunity.

The second question perhaps more complex.  It is true that I do not read the Sun regularly.  And when I do, it is more with the attitude of “Let’s see what the other side thinks”, and more often than not, I am repulsed by what passes for Journalism.  So the paper does not speak to me.  But what makes me angry is the people to whom this paper does speak.  Because they don’t remember that the Sun was wrong about the play, they only recall the stories from before the play opened.  And worse, the people more likely to read the Sun are actually the people that our current federal government most wants to placate.  So when the Sun calls up a Minister and starts asking uncomfortable questions about funding for an arts organization, that Minister doesn’t speak about the importance of the Canada Council for the Arts being an arms length funding agency.  No, they talk about how Summerworks grant will be reviewed.  Which is exactly what the Sun wants.  The Sun, if they support government arts funding at all, want all the dollars allocated to the arts to be accountable to the whims of the Canadian People.  Which on a certain level is admirable. We are a democracy (a Parliamentary Democracy at that), so the will of the people should count for something, right?  But the Arts Council’s job is to fund the arts, to allow exploration and excitement, to fund projects that are new and push boundries.  Of course, artists understand this concept.  But the Sun’s base doesn’t. They probably don’t think about arts funding at all, and when they do, they picture (as Stephen Harper put it) “a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough”.

The Sun, as an organization doesn’t believe in funding for the arts, so they take every chance they can to bash it.  But I can’t help but wonder, what do we lose if they are successful.  If the Sun is successful in its campaign against Summerworks, and the funding for the festival is revoked, then there’s no Summerworks this year, and Toronto loses a vibrant part of its arts schedule and a number of new plays will never see the light of day.  But worse, if the Sun is successful now, what happens to the next festival they turn their attention to?  Once they’ve seen that they can shame the government into intervening, will any funding for any arts organization be safe?  Likely not.

And what will happen then?


  1. This is scary stuff Phil! I had no idea!

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