Thursday, 24 November 2011

Mike Harding responds...

Following my posting of my email to Mike Harding yesterday, Mike has replied and given his responses in two emails: firstly a general and very interesting piece about the genesis of the awards and then a point-by-point response to my email. I thank him for taking the time to respond, even though I seem to have made no dent in his attitude. 


It disturbs me that such a prominent figure as Mike sees honest concern and intelligent criticism from genuine fans as "moaning" and "nagging", and also that he has such little regard for the democratic process, claiming on one hand that public voting would skew the awards to those who sell the most records and tickets, yet on the other defending the awards for rewarding the same people because they sell the most records and tickets!


As far as I'm concerned I can do no more on this issue at this point. Currently I'm not well and this whole episode is impacting further on my health, and sapping time away from other projects at FolkCast. If you feel strongly about this issue, it's up to you to get involved, to make your feelings known to Smooth Operations and the BBC. I intend to step away from this argument - for now at least.


I've raised what I consider to be legitimate concerns, and received a great deal of support for my views here, on Twitter and on Facebook. Thanks to all for that, it's much appreciated!


There are also some people who have criticised me and others for even daring to criticise the awards, saying we should simply support them blindly and "get behind the folk scene" or words to that effect. Sorry, but that's like suggesting we should not criticise  politicians, just support them blindly and "get behind the government". That's not the way we do things in Great Britain - we hold people and things paid with public money up to scrutiny and up to account.


Mike and others have warned that the BBC could even cancel the entire awards if there is "a whiff of scandal or trouble". That would be a terrible shame, but what better reason does anyone need to ensure that the awards are not only "honest and above board" (as he puts it) but can be demonstrated to be so to anyone who suggests otherwise? Only a house built on shaky foundations can be so easily toppled.


If nothing else, I and others such as Emma Hartley who have asked serious, important questions about an issue which involves a large amount of public money have managed to reveal a little more about the mechanics of the Folk Awards than have ever been previously forthcoming from the organisers. We've shown the weaknesses of the system, exposed the confusion among even those at the centre of the organisation. A little more light has been shone into the machine, and that might just help dispel some of the wilder rumours that I've heard about how the Folk Awards work.


It's a start, but I remain convinced that Smooth Operations and the BBC need to take a long, hard look at the whole process in order to win the confidence of everyone that the process of nomination and voting is not only straight but can be shown to be straight. It's too late to do that for 2012, but we'll see if they take the opportunity in time for the 2013 Awards.


At the end of his email Mike makes mention of personal abuse against himself. I want to make it clear that none of that came from me or anyone associated with FolkCast, despite a message on Twitter from Mike that associated our name with it. I asked him to make it clear that it came from elsewhere: he did not do so. He also mentions an "Occupy Folk Awards" slogan. This was from me and was clearly a joke (indicated as such with a smiley), and made in response to someone else's comment. I hope Mike isn't losing his sense of humour!



I'll make no further comment here – you, dear reader, can make up your own mind. Please feel free to add a comment to the bottom of this blog post (I'll publish them all, pro and anti, as long as they aren't libellous!), and to Mike Harding's own blog where he has also posted his thoughts and responses.


At first Mike specified that his comments were not to be published, but in a later email he did give permission. First there's his initial email, and then his point-by-point rebuttal, where Mike's answers are in bold, just as he formatted them in his email. What follows is unedited in any way. 


Phil


**************************



The Folk Awards - Some Thoughts
Shortly after I began presenting the folk programme for BBC Radio 2 some fourteen years ago I found myself out in Austin, Texas to cover the South by South West Festival there, recording interviews and making programmes. Nic Barraclough and Bob Harris were out there also for their programmes as was my executive producer John Leonard. One night, as we were sitting round the dinner table I said it was a pity that we didn’t have a Folk Music Hall of Fame similar to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
We chatted on, looking at various possibilities: could there be a Folk Centre somewhere in the Midlands perhaps; could Cecil Sharpe House become a folk music Hall of Fame. We came to the conclusion that getting a building would be difficult – but we could at least have an awards ceremony like the Nashville awards that recognised excellence in Folk.
From that simple idea came the Folk Awards. The BBC put up some money (to hire venues, put up acts in hotels, pay their airfares etc.) and John got on with the work of contacting festival and folk club organisers, record company execs, folk journalist and folk programme presenters asking them to be judges. 
There are 170 of them and each year they are asked to do two things…

1 - sign a form saying that they will not vote for anybody that they have a personal or financial interest in
2  - fill in a form with their nominations for best singer, best new song, horizon award etc.

The forms are scrutinised to check that the judges are not voting for acts they record or represent – none ever have ...EVER

That is all – no swearing to secrecy, no cloak and dagger 

The people who receive the awards do, on the whole, represent the best on the folk scene at the present moment. It may seem to some that unknowns are not represented, but that is the same in any profession – we all have to serve our time. The notion that somebody can pick up a guitar one week and appear at Cambridge the next is just nonsense. There may well be great undiscovered acts out there - but if they’re all that great they won’t be undiscovered for long. I spend hours trawling the web and listening to links people have sent me as does my producer Jon Lewis.

The nominations come from the judges on the basis of their personal judgement and are not drawn from the playlist for my programme – whether or not I have played most of them is neither here nor there.

After the first round of nominations 4 names come forward in each category and the judges then vote on these. The end results are announced on the night of the awards together with the Good Folk Award and Lifetime Achievement Awards - these are made to people who have done just that - been good to the folk world or worked all their life in a very special way for folk. 

There are no cliques / cabals or covens.
All we are trying to do is further the music we all love.
I don’t know who the other judges are and I don’t care. I know enough about both the BBC and my producer John Leonard to know that everything is above board.
Trust is everything.

I don’t particularly care whether the names of the judges become public knowledge or not – they weren’t kept secret they just weren’t published.I suspect that both Smooth Operations and the BBC thought nobody would be much interested in knowing who they were – I would however point out that…
 
1 - Judges might not want their names known because they could possibly become the subjects of either lobbying  or abuse.
The lobbying I doubt simply because there ain’t that much money in folk that a big record company are going to start flying Fred Bloggs the organiser of WIlberswick Folk Festival to Cannes. Also I suspect that the folk world – because of its very roots – is fundamentally anti big business and is still at base a world in which honesty and being rooted is very important– you couldn’t find more rooted and honest people for example than Chris Wood and Martin Simpson two of this years nominees. 
Abuse (as from the evidence of this “transparency” campaign) is much more likely.

2 - The campaign to “out” the judges seems to be generating hot air, hysteria, misinformation and personal attacks that are completely unnecessary. I deeply believe that if the names were made known, the trolls that are rubbishing the Folk Awards at the moment would just move on to rubbishing the judges. It’s a no win situation. I for one would just like to get on with making good programmes (please) and would love to be able to open my Facebook or Twitter pages and find it clear of nagging, false information, abuse and silliness (e.g. the recent tweet to “Occupy the Folk Awards”).

The Folk Awards came about because of the music we love - not for any monetary or egotistical gain - it was simply to share the good things of the folk world - and we managed to get the BBC to spend a good deal of time and money working on them. Not everybody agrees with the result but I think that many people feel that it does largely recognise and applaud all the good stuff that is happening on todays folk scene. I too have my reservations about some of the results – but the voting is fair and honest so I accept the decisions. That’s what happens in any voting process. Look at the long list of people who’ve received awards over the years and tell me that people like the Copper Family, Christy Moore, Joan Baez, Spiers and Boden, Chris Wood, Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr and James Fagin, Martin Simpson, Ewan McLennan, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates, Lucy ward etc. are not worthy of nomination.  

We have one hour a week of folk on BBC mainstream. We should be making it easier for the BBC to work with us, not harder.



**********



1: This criticism is not about trying to knock down the R2FAs, it is all about building them up, making them stronger and ensuring nothing but the clearest, fairest possible representation of the folk scene. Awards of any kind are worthless unless we can all have confidence in the people and procedures involved.
Ans
Why don’t you trust us to do our best? People have been doing since the Folk Awards began. "Clearest fairest possible representation …" most people think it is
2: The R2FAs are funded by the BBC licence payers and therefore subject to scrutiny by the licence payers. This scrutiny is not "mischief making" or "misinformation" but rather a desire to ensure that the awards are not only honest but can be demonstrated to be so. It's about abolishing secrecy and letting in the light of inspection, and about removing the cause for the annual round of whispered accusations of "cliquism", "favouritism" or conflict of interest.
Ans
The Awards are already scrutinised by the Compliance section at the BBC and scrutinised rigourously - since the Jonathan Ross and Russel Brand affair the BBC has been extra extra cautious about anything involving voting / awards etc
3: The criticism is not against the BBC or against you (Mike Harding) personally. Your own contribution to the folk scene, artistically and otherwise, is widely acknowledged and admired.
Ans 
No comment
4: The criticism is not about who wins any particular award category in any particular year. There will always be differences of opinion about that, and such debate is not only unavoidable it's also healthy - as long as the reasons for how and why the award has been made are clear and open.
Ans 
No awards ceremony in the world publishes reasons why the judges have made their decisions at length - too laborious and we don’t have the staff or time to do it. 
In any case I'm not sure the judges would want to sit down and write a resume of their feelings about certain acts - it's not something that is ever done as far s I know. Do ice skating judges write a report? Booker Prize judges?
5: As these are BBC awards they speak for the BBC and, therefore, the nation, yet they are run in a manner that makes it impossible for the nation - "The Folk" themselves - to understand exactly why each award is made, who has decided on it and why. The procedure also denies the public any influence over the awards at a time when it has never been easier to allow it, via registered internet voting.
Ans 
You can understand exactly how each award is made by listening to me explain it n the programme - the best duo award is made for the best duo, the horizon award is made for the act that has emerged in the past year that has made the biggest effect on the scene  - the judges have been asked to nominate names and have done so. 
Public voting via internet voting would mean that people with massive fan bases would swerve the vote every time
6: There is nothing new about these concerns. Smooth Operations must have been aware of them for several years as they have been repeatedly raised not only by fans but also by some very prominent artists, including some past winners of the awards. However, despite repeated public and private criticism and direct questioning, Smooth Operations has chosen to do nothing to address the issue. This has led to some fans calling for closer investigation by the BBC into the procedures.
Ans 
Tell me who? name names? Nobody but people not involved or people who have never been to the awards have ever complained to me. There are a handful of people out there whipping this up into an unnecessary storm. Whenever people complain that there are far better acts out there that never get a mention I ask for names - none come forward. Likewise I ask you - who are the acts / individuals etc who complain and what are their complaints.? Name names in the spirit of openness
7: Despite your own public protestations that the awards are "done for love" and that "no ego, no money" is involved you must be aware that winners of a R2FA can potentially receive very large financial rewards, indirectly, thanks to increased record sales, ticket sales, festival appearances and so on. Artists' careers have been made or massively enhanced by winning a prominent music award, and the R2FAs have become the most important award in the British folk scene.
Ans 
Do you know that the Young folk Award - which we also run for love and not for money has kick started the career of Tim Van Eyken - Jackie Oates and Jim Moray to name but 3. They've gone on to have great careers. Do you want that to be put under the microscope? Because if you do then - fine but it's just more time and energy spent on investigating a completely honest competition that does nothing but good for the folk scene. We've run that since the start of my show and it has meant a grab deal to hundreds of young folk.
As for the winners of the R2FA furthering people's careers - that is neither here nor there - that is not the point of the Awards - the Awards are a way of saying "thank you" of saying "well done" If you've every watched or listened to the Awards you will have heard me say that at each and every one.
I personally don't like awards or competitions - but I do se ho the R2FA has raised the profile of fok in this country through getting journos and other broadcasters to come and cover it.
My programme was pulling in 70,000 listeners when I took it over it now gets listened to by 860,000. I don't get a penny more than I got when I first started so in real terms I'm worse off. I do this because I believe in it  and to be brutal I get mightily pigged off by the constant carping from people nit picking and pushing their own agendas who don;t see that - yes it's not a perfect show and it aint going to please everybody but we only have one hour a week - one hour for god's sake!!
8: The biggest concern about the R2FAs is that the identities and allegiances of R2FA jury members are kept secret by Smooth Operations. The R2FAs tell the world that the winners are "the best" in their category, but when we ask "says who?" Smooth Operations replies "we aren't going to tell you". That hugely devalues the awards, and leaves them wide open to criticism. It has been suggested that concealing jurors' identities is the best way to avoid "lobbying". In fact, all it does is ensure that only those who do know the names of jurors can lobby, potentially creating an even greater distortion of votes. I'm not saying this has happened, but the system does nothing to prevent it happening or to allow people to be confident that it doesn't happen to some extent.
Ans 
I think I've answered this in my observations sent to you
I don't give a flying chuff who the judges are and if you want their names and I had them I'd give them you - but the people who are wingeing and moaning at us now would then be wingeing and moaning at the judges - and you know that to be true. The folk world seems more concerned with eating and attacking itself than support ing those who are getting on with stuff and doing and honest job the best way they can.
As the fronts man of both my prog and the awards I take all this very personally. I've repeated over and again that there is no clique or cabal - I only know of 3 other judges 2 of them in Smooth Ops and as I said I could;t care les who the others are.
THEY ALL HAVE TO SIGN A FORM DECLARING THAT THEY WILL NOTE VOTE FOR ANYBODY IN WHOM THEY HAVE AN INTEREST - THEY DO SIGN IT AND THE BBC AND SMOOTH OPS POLICE THEIR ENTRIES
9: Even those closely involved with the awards cannot seem to agree about who is on the jury. You (Mike Harding) have publicly stated that no-one from record companies is involved in voting, but Smooth Operations have said the opposite, admitting that "agents and record labels" are among those with a vote. This confused and confusing situation is a further detriment to the reputation of the R2FAs, to the BBC as a whole and to the folk scene in general.
Ans 
I was wrong about the record companies for which I apologise - lack of knowledge not intention to deceive  -   and as I stated above they are policed fully - also as I have pointed out before I don't particularly care about the voting process and leave that to Smooth Ops and the BBC Both of whom I trust
10: There are further criticisms including 
a) All non-musical awards such as the Folk Club of the Year Award, have been scrapped and so no-one in the folk scene other than musicians is rewarded or even acknowledged for their work, 
Ans 
I'm not sure why this happened  - I think it was because it was getting difficult to get the votes in (this category was voted for by the performers who work in the folk clubs and the returns from them were poor.
 b) the awards - either by design or accident - give multiple awards to a small group of "elite" artists year after year while ignoring others artists working hard on the scene. 
Ans 
Name names. - If Bellowhead fill stages all over the world and sell thousands of albums is it not likely that  out of 170 judges many of them will vote for the band as Best Group
Andy Cutting is a world class musician who appears on many many peoples albums - that's why he gets nominated for best musician over and again 
There's not much you can do to make somebody popular unpopular  and I do wish you would tell me the great acts out there that have never had recognition either by being nominated or awarded
However, these concerns are secondary to the main issue of the unnecessarily obfuscated jury membership and voting procedure.
If these awards were run by any organisation other than the BBC my concerns would be irrelevant, but as these are BBC awards every effort must be made to ensure that they stand up to any scrutiny. 
Ans 
Is the scrutiny of the BBC itself not enough for you?? Do you believe them when the BBC presents the news? Current affairs?  The BBC has a world-wide reputation for truth and trust. The kind of inuendo and suggestion of malpractice that have been coming from some sections of the folk scene are both unfounded and unnecessary.
I'm sure that the BBC, Smooth Operations and you, Mike, as the public face of the awards, want to ensure that the BBC R2 Folk Awards are not only fair and honest but also are seen to be fair, honest and above reproach. You all have the opportunity to ensure that this is the case with a simple revision of procedures and the publication of a full list of the jury members' identities and commercial allegiances.
Ans 
Well lets see what the BBC do because - as I said it has bugger all to do with me
Absolutely nothing - I do not make policy at the BBC and I do not control the purse strings of Radio 2 - NADA ZILCH
Clearly it is too late now to change anything for the 2012 awards as the nominations have been announced. But the time is ripe for revision and reinvention. Why not start by asking what "the folk" actually want? I hope that, once the 2012 awards are complete, the BBC launches a full consultation of listeners: what award categories they would like to see, what voting system to use, what level of direct public involvement there should be. Ask people what they want the Folk Awards to be, rather than presuming to speak on their behalf.
Ans 
I presume to make programmes on your behalf - do you want to sit on my shoulders as I make each programme telling me you don't like this or that? We also have a regular request show and my post bag is always open for emails tweets or whatever else - and I do go looking for good acts to play  - so other than that I don't know what the hell I can do to convince you that I am not some part of a folk plot to keep good music off the air.
A lot has changed in the folk scene since the Folk Awards were first staged in 2000 but there has never been a proper root-and-branch review of the awards themselves, just tinkering with various categories. What started as a simple party in the off season to hand out prizes to the great and the good has grown massively in importance and impact and it's no longer just a jolly fun night out for a bunch of mates. Sadly, the R2FAs are failing to match the role they have perhaps unintentionally acquired: speaking to the wider world on behalf of the cream of the British folk scene.
Ans 
That's your opinion to which you are entitled - I don’t think it has changed that much at all - have you been?
It's still a jolly night out the aim of which is to give a pat on the back to various acts - the at being a collective one from the folk world
If you are absolutely convinced that the R2FAs are perfect and cannot be improved and made more robust then continue to do what you have been doing - but be sure that the criticism will not go away just because you tell fans and musicians to "stop moaning" as if it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with them! These are the very people who pay for these awards through their TV licence, these are the very people who through their daily involvement with playing or listening to music, organising events and taking part in dance and other activities are the living, breathing embodiments of the folk scene. If you want to see this situation resolved then show that you really are in tune with what the folk scene is all about by helping to break down the barriers between the Folk Awards and The Folk themselves.
Ans 
Nothing is perfect - but you could help to make it better by suggestions rather than attacks I don't say it has nothing to do with the folk fans all I say is
A - IT IS HONEST AND ABOVE BOARD
B - WE DO THE BEST WE CAN TO PROMTE ALL ASPECTS OF FOLK - NOT EASY IN ONE HOUR A WEEK
C - MUCH OF THE CRITICISM HAS BEEN LEVELED BLINDLY WITHOUT ANY REAL THOUGHT ABOUT HOW DIFFICULT THIS IS. WHERE IS THE EXTRA MONEY GOING TO COME FROM TO DO ALL YOU ASK? WE DON;T HAVE ANY AND THE BBC CUT US BACK EVER YEAR 
WE NO LONGER DO SIDMOUTH OR CELTIC CONNECTIONS BECAUSE OF THE CUTS OR EXAMPLE
If you're not totally happy with the awards then now is the time for you to use your position and influence to help bring about the revision and reinvention that's so badly needed. By doing nothing you are supporting a rotten system, sticking up for the establishment and propping up the status quo - and that doesn't sound like the Mike Harding I know. Drive out secrecy! Bring in democracy and openness!
Ans 
I think the Awards are pretty damn good and we are very lucky that the BBC spend such a sizeable amount of money one themm
Idon't have a position or influence - I present / produce my programme and the Folk Awards. Policy is decided by the BBC - if you think it's a rotten system run by the establishment then I must be rotten and part of the establishment - I am neither my friend
Seize the opportunity to make these awards what they should have been all along: by The Folk, of The Folk and for The Folk.
Ans 
What does that mean? By The Folk Of The Folk For the Folk?
By and large it is - the people who vote are folk in the folk scene - the people they vote for are folk in the folk scene and the music is  folk music made for the people who listen
I made my point about intimidation and abuse in the piece I sent to you
I will repeat again that if the judges were named (and I don't care if they are or not) then they could very well be open to the kinds of email and postings I've been getting and they ma well not want to do that
Also can I point out that the BBC hate any whiff of scandal or trouble and while I am 100% sure the R2 FA are honest and above board - all this kerfuffle could well mean that they decide it just ain't worth it
Can't say I would blame them
I have just spent the best part of ¾ of an hour reading and responding to your email 
Overall this thing has eaten into time I should be spending listening to music and sorting out programmes - and the abuse and carping at times has been pretty hard to take. The BBC do not take kindly to such slogans as Occupy the Folk Awards and neither do I

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Dear Mike Harding...



I've been having a discussion via Twitter with BBC radio folk show presenter Mike Harding about the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards controversy, but the 140-character format of that medium makes it difficult for anyone to get a point across. Mike kindly asked me to email him directly, and I have now done so. In an effort to keep all this in the public arena as much as possible, I've copied the email, unedited, below, and I hope to get Mike's permission to similarly post any reply he sends to me.

Phil.

(SENT at 18:17 on November 23 2011)

Hi Mike,

At your suggestion, I'm writing to you directly in a further attempt to put across my criticism of the jury and voting system used by the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (R2FAs). Other people have either supported me or made criticisms of their own, but I do not claim to speak on their behalf or to necessarily support them.

You've said that you are tired of what you see as "carping" and "sniping". I'm tired of the issue myself, but feel I have to continue to be critical in an attempt to break through a brick wall of secrecy, complacency and confusion.

As you seem to be under some misapprehension about the motives and the issues, below I've attempted to sum up the issue in 10 hopefully easy-to-grasp points. However, if you want just one "soundbite" it is this:
The secret jury and confidential rules of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards do nothing to engender trust, are detrimental to the standing and reputation of everyone involved and are contradictory to the democratic traditions of the folk scene itself.

Here are the 10 points that expand on this:
1: This criticism is not about trying to knock down the R2FAs, it is all about building them up, making them stronger and ensuring nothing but the clearest, fairest possible representation of the folk scene. Awards of any kind are worthless unless we can all have confidence in the people and procedures involved.
2: The R2FAs are funded by the BBC licence payers and therefore subject to scrutiny by the licence payers. This scrutiny is not "mischief making" or "misinformation" but rather a desire to ensure that the awards are not only honest but can be demonstrated to be so. It's about abolishing secrecy and letting in the light of inspection, and about removing the cause for the annual round of whispered accusations of "cliquism", "favouritism" or conflict of interest. 
3: The criticism is not against the BBC or against you (Mike Harding) personally. Your own contribution to the folk scene, artistically and otherwise, is widely acknowledged and admired.
4: The criticism is not about who wins any particular award category in any particular year. There will always be differences of opinion about that, and such debate is not only unavoidable it's also healthy - as long as the reasons for how and why the award has been made are clear and open.
5: As these are BBC awards they speak for the BBC and, therefore, the nation, yet they are run in a manner that makes it impossible for the nation - "The Folk" themselves - to understand exactly why each award is made, who has decided on it and why. The procedure also denies the public any influence over the awards at a time when it has never been easier to allow it, via registered internet voting.
6: There is nothing new about these concerns. Smooth Operations must have been aware of them for several years as they have been repeatedly raised not only by fans but also by some very prominent artists, including some past winners of the awards. However, despite repeated public and private criticism and direct questioning, Smooth Operations has chosen to do nothing to address the issue. This has led to some fans calling for closer investigation by the BBC into the procedures. 
7: Despite your own public protestations that the awards are "done for love" and that "no ego, no money" is involved you must be aware that winners of a R2FA can potentially receive very large financial rewards, indirectly, thanks to increased record sales, ticket sales, festival appearances and so on. Artists' careers have been made or massively enhanced by winning a prominent music award, and the R2FAs have become the most important award in the British folk scene.
8: The biggest concern about the R2FAs is that the identities and allegiances of R2FA jury members are kept secret by Smooth Operations. The R2FAs tell the world that the winners are "the best" in their category, but when we ask "says who?" Smooth Operations replies "we aren't going to tell you". That hugely devalues the awards, and leaves them wide open to criticism. It has been suggested that concealing jurors' identities is the best way to avoid "lobbying". In fact, all it does is ensure that only those who do know the names of jurors can lobby, potentially creating an even greater distortion of votes. I'm not saying this has happened, but the system does nothing to prevent it happening or to allow people to be confident that it doesn't happen to some extent.
9: Even those closely involved with the awards cannot seem to agree about who is on the jury. You (Mike Harding) have publicly stated that no-one from record companies is involved in voting, but Smooth Operations have said the opposite, admitting that "agents and record labels" are among those with a vote. This confused and confusing situation is a further detriment to the reputation of the R2FAs, to the BBC as a whole and to the folk scene in general.
10: There are further criticisms including a) All non-musical awards such as the Folk Club of the Year Award, have been scrapped and so no-one in the folk scene other than musicians is rewarded or even acknowledged for their work, and b) the awards - either by design or accident - give multiple awards to a small group of "elite" artists year after year while ignoring others artists working hard on the scene. However, these concerns are secondary to the main issue of the unnecessarily obfuscated jury membership and voting procedure.

If these awards were run by any organisation other than the BBC my concerns would be irrelevant, but as these are BBC awards every effort must be made to ensure that they stand up to any scrutiny. I'm sure that the BBC, Smooth Operations and you, Mike, as the public face of the awards, want to ensure that the BBC R2 Folk Awards are not only fair and honest but also are seen to be fair, honest and above reproach. You all have the opportunity to ensure that this is the case with a simple revision of procedures and the publication of a full list of the jury members' identities and commercial allegiances.

Clearly it is too late now to change anything for the 2012 awards as the nominations have been announced. But the time is ripe for revision and reinvention. Why not start by asking what "the folk" actually want? I hope that, once the 2012 awards are complete, the BBC launches a full consultation of listeners: what award categories they would like to see, what voting system to use, what level of direct public involvement there should be. Ask people what they want the Folk Awards to be, rather than presuming to speak on their behalf.

A lot has changed in the folk scene since the Folk Awards were first staged in 2000 but there has never been a proper root-and-branch review of the awards themselves, just tinkering with various categories. What started as a simple party in the off season to hand out prizes to the great and the good has grown massively in importance and impact and it's no longer just a jolly fun night out for a bunch of mates. Sadly, the R2FAs are failing to match the role they have perhaps unintentionally acquired: speaking to the wider world on behalf of the cream of the British folk scene.

If you are absolutely convinced that the R2FAs are perfect and cannot be improved and made more robust then continue to do what you have been doing - but be sure that the criticism will not go away just because you tell fans and musicians to "stop moaning" as if it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with them! These are the very people who pay for these awards through their TV licence, these are the very people who through their daily involvement with playing or listening to music, organising events and taking part in dance and other activities are the living, breathing embodiments of the folk scene. If you want to see this situation resolved then show that you really are in tune with what the folk scene is all about by helping to break down the barriers between the Folk Awards and The Folk themselves.

If you're not totally happy with the awards then now is the time for you to use your position and influence to help bring about the revision and reinvention that's so badly needed. By doing nothing you are supporting a rotten system, sticking up for the establishment and propping up the status quo - and that doesn't sound like the Mike Harding I know. Drive out secrecy! Bring in democracy and openness! 

Seize the opportunity to make these awards what they should have been all along: by The Folk, of The Folk and for The Folk.

I want to encourage proper debate with other folk fans on this issue and to that end I intend to publish this email on my blog (http://folkcasters.blogspot.com/), so that others can see exactly what has been said. With your permission, I'd also like to publish any reply you choose to make.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email.

Yours respectfully and in friendship,

Phil

-- 

Phil Widdows
Producer/Presenter
FolkCast
http://www.folkcast.co.uk

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Folk Awards controversy … the story so far.


For those just arriving on the scene, or for those wanting a handy reminder, here's a summation of just what the BBC Folk Awards controversy (2011) has been all about:

TIMELINE:
On November 16 the nominations for the 2012 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards were announced.

On November 17 FolkCast asked (not the first time) why the same names keep being being nominated year after year, and also asked just who makes up the "mysterious cabal" which both creates the nominations and then votes on those nominations to find a winner.

On November 18/19 a rather heated row brewed up on Facebook between some folk fans and performers on one side and (mostly) Mike Harding - the 'face' of the Folk Awards - on the other.
To sum it up, some fans alleged that there is a "closed shop" which greatly restricts which performers are even considered for an award, and complained that the people voting in the awards are largely commercially involved in one way or another with the folk scene, either through selling records or festival tickets. The worry is that commercial interests could be manipulating the awards unbeknown to the producers of the awards (Smooth Operations) or the BBC.
Mike Harding told them that they were wrong, that "no record company or executives are allowed to vote" and that fans and musicians should "give up on your moaning and support the folk scene instead". He also suggested that if people didn't like the way the awards were run they should run them themselves, but he did not supply details of where people could apply for BBC funding...
FolkCast reports proceedings of the Facebook row in a blog post.

On November 20 Emma Hartley published a blog featuring an email conversation with Kellie While of Smooth Operations, which gave some more details about the kind of people who are on the judging panel. Contrary to Mike Harding's assertions, it appears that record labels are among their number:  "festival organisers, journalists, broadcasters, agents, record labels and so on." In other words, largely people with a commercial interest in the folk scene in one way or another.
Emma's blog post also included a short interview with an (anonymous) awards judge, who seems unsure if he's allowed to tell anyone of his involvement.

On November 21, Emma is telephoned by John Leonard, producer of the Folk Awards (and head of Smooth Operations), who attempts to defend the awards. 

On November 22, Emma publishes a further blog post with various suggested points of action.

Twitter messages posted by Mike Harding
Meanwhile, on Twitter (see screen grab, right), Mike Harding again sets out to answer critics and, in response to FolkCast's suggestion that ordinary folk fans are disenfranchised by the awards procedure, says that this isn't the case because "The 150 people who vote are from all over the folk world". He also wrote: "And there's no way the BBC would open it up to the public - can you imagine how abused it could be then?"

FOLKCAST COMMENT: 
Mike's stridently anti-democratic stance is surprising - especially as the BBC regularly opens up awards and competitions to public voting or input, ranging from Sports Personality Of The Year to the Radio 2 New Comedy Award via Strictly Come Dancing, and other music awards around the world - including the Scots Trad Awards, the Canadian Juno Awards and even the Brit Awards and the Grammy Awards - also trust the public to vote on at least some categories.

Mike Harding has accused critics of the awards system of spreading "false information and mischief". What false information there has been has come as a result of the secrecy surrounding the awards voting system (ie the correct information is not in the public arena), or from directly contradictory statements or factually incorrect statements made by people working for Smooth Operations (including Mike Harding himself). 

As for "mischief", well… folk fans are certainly making trouble for the awards organisers but it's not out of a sense of naughtiness or to make pranks. We question the awards system because we care about the music and the people who make that music, and we want to be sure that those who are rewarded in our name not only receive those awards for honest and straightforward reasons but that the machinary behind the awards is beyond reproach. 


THE MAIN POINTS AGAIN
  • A growing number of folk fans have criticised the awards for being too narrow in their frame of reference and for being exclusive, muddled and for having a voting system which is unrepresentative and undemocratic. The awards repeatedly rewards the same narrow group of performers while ignoring large swathes of the British folk scene, not only other performers but also the non-performing side, which is vital for the continued health of the music.
  • Smooth Operations have denied that there is a problem, have repeated that the awards are compliant with BBC rules and policy (although what that policy is has also not been revealed), and that the voting system involving between 150 and 170 "folk professionals - including festival organisers, journalists, broadcasters, agents and record labels" is completely free of the possibility of corruption or coercion or conflict of interest.
  • Folk Awards presenter Mike Harding has publicly announced that the public cannot be trusted to have a hand in the awards, and dismissed all criticism as "sniping", "carping" and "mischief".


WHY THIS MATTERS:
  • The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are Britain's premier folk music award. Because they fly the BBC flag, they de facto represent all licence-payers and consequently the vast majority of British folk fans. 
  • Commercially, they can transform the prospects of an act or a record, boosting ticket and record sales and consequently greatly boosting their fees of concert and festival appearances. 
  • The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards are widely covered by the mainstream media, and are one of the few occasions virtually guaranteed to give the artists involved publicity outside the folk scene.
  • The two-CD album produced each year in association with the awards is one of the best selling folk records in most years, which in itself is an important revenue generator for the artists and labels involved.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Harding hits back in folk awards row


                                                                                                                                                                 
Mike Harding, genial host of BBC radio's flagship folk show, has reacted angrily to criticism of the station's annual folk awards, telling fans and artists who complained to: "Give up on your moaning and support the folk scene instead" and dismissing other concerns as "total bollocks"

Mike Harding: not amused
Mike also denied that there is any "corruption" or "favouritism" in how the awards are nominated and judged.
Responding on Facebook to folk fan Julian Talbot's strident posting that the awards are "nowt but a load of shite", Mr Harding - who has hosted the awards ceremony for the last 12 years - said that the nominations are "nothing to do with me" but challenged Julian to justify why he thought performers are unworthy.

Meanwhile, FolkCast has received lots of messages, publicly and privately, from fans and musicians agreeing with our blog post which criticised the narrow range of the nominations and the opacity of the nomination and judging process for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which have become the single most high-profile event on the folk music calendar, attracting widescale mainstream media coverage. Several folk musicians have told us off the record that they cannot comment publically on the awards as they fear being accused of "sour grapes", but that they feel aggrieved at the way the awards seem to constantly favour certain artists to the exclusion of others.

Back on Facebook, as the at-times heated online discussion continued and others added their criticisms of the award nominations, Harding's defence of the awards became more robust.

"You just don't know what you're talking about", he told detractors. 

And it's not just fans who are unhappy with aspects of the awards. Folk musicians have added their voices, too.

Bryony Holden, singer with folk band Tinkerscuss, wrote that "there seems a closed shop when it comes to the newer acts. There seems to be some sort of folk 'mafia' - the same names come up all the time and if you're not in, then you haven't a hope in hell of getting much airplay or bookings let alone awards."


Folk performer Buddy Freeman, of Cardigan-based duo Sandwitch, wrote: "the BBC is a closed shop and has been for years there is more Talent kicking around facebook and myspace that would blow away most of the nominated acts ... but the BBC won't even look at them ... its snobery of a high degree."

Twaddle

Mike Harding responded: "You are so so so wrong" and said that a lot of folk music found on the web is "self indulgent twaddle"

However, he also threw a little more light on the kind of people who decide who the awards go to, citing a selection of folk club and festival organisers, folk journalists and university lecturers who run folk courses as the arbiters of taste and judgement. Previously, the BBC has said that a panel of 170 "folk professionals" vote on the nominations and then the awards. However, the identities of people on the panel is kept top secret.

Clearly hurt by the criticism, including one post suggesting that people may fear that "big PR & record companies [are] buying the awards", Mike wrote: "No record cos or execs are allowed a vote the BBC screen them all. There is no corruption and no favouritism. You just don't know what you are talking about.

"I do this job cos I love it. 3 gigs at Sheffield City Hall would pay me more than I get from the beeb for doing it."

For the first time, the 2012 folk awards ceremony will not be held in London but instead moves to the 1,730-seat Lowry Theatre in Salford, which is alongside the BBC's new home in the North West of England. The ceremony will be staged on February 8th and, again for the first time, some lucky folk fans will be able to attend in person, with all the tickets being quickly snapped up at £10 a time within hours of going on sale.

Digging holes

Mike Harding then rounded on his critics: "Give up on your moaning and support the folk scene instead - the awards aren't perfect but the fact that tkts [tickets] sold out in 2 hrs means that there's a hell of a lot of people out there that appreciate what we're trying to do."

"You all remind me of the blokes who stand round watching workmen digging holes in the road telling them they're not doing it right. As my gran always used to say - "if you think you're all that good then do it your fxxkin' self." 

Several people supported Mike Harding's Facebook comments by clicking the associated "like" button next to his posts, but still others reacted sternly. Hugh Songsongwriters (which may not be his real name...) told Mike: "Shame on you Mike... have you lost all your Rochdale roots? As for folk talent you must have gone deaf as well or just to old a fart to listen."


EDIT: Our friend Emma Hartley has been in contact with Smooth Operations, the independent production company that runs both the Radio 2 folk show and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Her questions have unpeeled a little more detail about how the awards are run. Read her blog here.


You can see the thread on Facebook here and I've included five screengrabs of the conversation below, just in case any comments should accidentally be deleted in future: