For the past month the focus of the world’s press has been on the new incumbent of the White House. Understandably, much concern revolves around the firewall which separates Donald Trump the President from Donald Trump the businessman. The gossamer nature of this separation is, of course, worrying to those who value the liberty and dignity of citizens, since through the ages autocratic leaders have effectively facilitated the use of slave labour in private enterprises through tight political control. But rather than looking askance at the manipulation of the US institutions for personal gain it is worth considering an example much closer to home. Although in no way approaching the scale of Trump. the recent career of entertainer Gary Barlow provides a model of how a system of autocratic patronage operates and how it serves to subvert the aims and ambitions of an open society.
The murky background to Let It Shine
I am not a fan of Gary Barlow so I am poorly placed to judge whether his new primetime Saturday evening show, Let It Shine is good or otherwise. Undoubtedly he is a popular entertainer with musical talent as his many awards testify, but the quality or ability of Barlow as an artist is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the place which he occupies in the British establishment and the effect this has on our society. Now, as this article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph shows, I am certainly not the first to query the wisdom of the BBC in giving Barlow a brand new series. The problem is not wholly to do with Barlow’s tax-dodging past, although that will feature in my argument a little later. The main issue is that the BBC is once again following a format (for example Any Dream Will Do) of using the production as a talent spotting content for a putative musical show planned by Barlow called The Band. This is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of the rise of boy band Take That, which projected him to wealth and fame.
As far as we can tell the BBC has no commercial stake in the forthcoming musical so our money is being used to provide national advertising for a private production. This issue has been raised before, most pointedly in 2008 by none other than director of the Old Vic Theatre Kevin Spacey who protested at the free promotion being given to Andrew Lloyd Webber (Lord Webber, by the way. one of Barlow’s collaborators) musicals, especially Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Was Spacey justified? Apparently, as Furness points out, he was:
At the time , a study by the Society of London Theatre found theatregoers were 47 per cent more likely to go to shows after seeing the musical television tie-in, dubbing it the “Saturday night TV effect.
The Band musical is being produced by David Pugh Ltd and as no details have been released on funding or budget profile we are effectively ignorant of the commercial aspects of this enterprise. We cannot know whether our licence money is directly lining the pockets of the less than socially conscious Barlow. The essential question is whether the BBC itself has any idea since it was they who approached Barlow to make Let It Shine!
A World of Grace and Favour
Should we have concerns about the financial activities of Barlow? I think so. It is less than three years since Barlow, along with two other members of Take That, was found to be putting money into a scheme ruled by the courts to be a tax dodge. The three band members were ordered to pay back £20 million (!), a sum which they were clearly not keen to refund almost a year later as this report from April 2015 indicates. Bizarrely the BBC themselves highlighted a central issue of the debate which was the question of whether Barlow should be made to relinquish his OBE given to him by Elizabeth Windsor after he organised her ‘Diamond Jubilee’ concert in 2012. I have blogged previously about the iniquities of the honours system but here was a clear example of someone getting a gong for services rendered, presumably the grotesquely privileged equivalent of mates rates! Predictably, then Prime Minister David Cameron opposed a suggestion by Margaret Hodge, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of removing the honour.
At this point it is worth remembering the citation of the OBE which states it was awarded to Barlow for services to the Entertainment Industry and to Charity. The argument advanced by Cameron and others was that his tax-dodging antics had nothing to do with his charitable work so the OBE should still stand. But things are not so clear cut and charities actually receive a lot of funds from the public purse. As Zoe Williams succinctly put it in an article:
In fact, paying tax and giving to charity are connected, and if you avoid the former, you leave a gaping hole in the social fabric that must be darned by the latter. It’s like overlooking all the landmines a person planted, then giving them an MBE for money raised in the service of prosthetic limbs.
Williams goes on to make the point that there were precedents for stripping titles under similar circumstances (e.g. removing Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s knighthood) so this action was entirely reasonable.
So its now possible to see just how the system works. Gary Barlow is famous through his membership of the boy band Take That which makes a lot of money partly because of the BBC (just as for most popular UK artists). Barlow’s fame gets him the gig to organise Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee concert, which favour nets him an OBE. As a by-product of all this Barlow is wealthy enough to employ experts and participate in a tax scheme which diverts money legally belonging to the public purse. Barlow is recently approached by a BBC, angry at losing The Voice show to ITV and prepared to overlook Barlow’s misdemeanours in an attempt to chase ratings, despite being told by politicians not to do so. Barlow’s Let It Shine is generating free publicity for his new stage show which will virtually guarantee its success. The BBC is thus complicit in boosting audiences for a private venture, the funding of which is unknown (possibly even to the BBC). The continued possession of the OBE effectively justifies the whole putrid arrangement.
What links Gary Barlow to the Windsors and much of the rest of the British establishment is the desire for a grace and favour society in which they choose which social causes receive support (and who should get honours!). But such a society where resources are allocated on the whim and predilection of the wealthy and privileged is inimical to an open society where we all decide where resources should go and, in turn, we can all canvas public support for causes which are important to us. As I pointed out at the start, Barlow’s activities are trivial compared with the possibilities which may open up to Trump. But bear in mind that Barlow is merely one example, though a useful one as the facts are in the public domain allowing us to see the mechanism in operation. Grace and favour should have died with the nineteenth century!