From Arts Council Cancellation to Freedom in the Arts

This is the third of three interviews with people in the local cultural scene who’ve faced some form of cancellation. The first was with Castleford comedian at the start of his ordeal. The second was with a Wakefield musician a year into hers. Here I talk to someone who’s been through her cancellation and come out fighting, Huddersfield-based Denise Fahmy.

Denise Fahmy worked for Arts Council England for over 15 years until she had to take them to an employment tribunal for harassment over her ‘gender critical’ beliefs, which she won last June. Then in October, Denise and dancer and choreographer Rosie Kay founded Freedom in the Arts.

Freedom in the Arts (FITA) aims to champion artistic freedom and support those who’ve faced censure, harassment, and worse, for expressing beliefs that go against what could be termed the ‘critical social justice’ orthodoxy that seems to dominate the arts sector. FITA describes itself as “a 5-year emergency project to tackle the culture of fear and intimidation facing artists.” I caught up with Denise to find out how this all began.

DENISE, what started the whole process that led to FITA?

“Late 2021, Rosie Kay’s dance company collapsed following unfounded internal allegations of transphobia against her, as its artistic director, after a conversation with dancers at a dinner party in her own home. Without the support of her board, Rosie’s internationally successful award-winning company established in 2004 was effectively closed in 2022.

At the time I was a grant manager at Arts Council England. I was very shocked about what was happening to Rosie, particularly because her company was annually funded by the public purse through the Arts Council.

I’d been watching the rise of cancellations in the arts with growing concern. My own organisation seemed to have whole heartedly embraced the notion that people can change sex. I could see this in the way the Arts Council collected data from the organisations it funded, in which arts workers and audience members were asked to tell us about their assumed identities. This approach made the data completely inaccurate, and pointless, but it did demonstrate that a national government funding body appeared to have unthinkingly adopted very extreme ideas.

I wrote repeatedly to my chief executive alerting him to what I saw as inadvertent politicisation of what should be an impartial body. I noted that I accepted that people could believe anything they liked but that did not mean public bodes should endorse them over and above the characteristics of the Equality Act. My correspondence made waves but there was still no discussion from the Arts Council on the matter.

As time went on, and with news of Rosie’s predicament, I came to see the gender orthodoxy that dominated the arts, that is that sex is irrelevant and somehow fictious, whether I agreed with it or not, was not really the problem. There was a tsunami of bullying in the sector, and now people were getting in touch with me to tell me what had happened to them in their venues, studios and galleries. Most were women, many anxious, and I realised with shock that many people working in the arts were frightened. Frightened of being publicly accused of something shameful like transphobia or racism, worried about losing jobs, contracts and the respect of friends.  Worried about becoming toxic.”

How did all of this affect your position at the Arts Council and lead to your own case?

“I was in a safe job at the Arts Council, protected by employment laws and in a position of considerable privilege in the arts, where most people’s careers are precarious, each commission depending on your reputation. I felt a responsibility to raise again with my CEO the bullying, intolerance, censure and self-censorship that was happening in the sector, so I collated the testimonies of 15 people, who had been through ‘cancellation’ of varying degrees.

But before we could really consider the testimonies, and to be fair there was some willingness to do so, amongst less senior staff, just such a cancellation took place in my own workplace.

In April, LGB Alliance had secured a grant of £10k as part of Jubilee funding in 2022 to make a film about the achievements of gay men under Her Majesty’s reign. The award had come through a devolved funder but was originally National Lottery funds from the Arts Council. Because of a sustained campaign to demonise LGB Alliance since their inception in 2019, there was outrage online when the grant was announced. 

A few days after that an online all-staff meeting was called to discuss the grant, which was bizarre, and a senior member of staff re-iterated allegations against LGB Alliance egged on by 25 colleagues in the chat. He went on to say he didn’t think the organisation should be funded. I was gobsmacked!  And when a senior member of staff publicly slurred an applicant organisation, I openly countered his claim and asked what the Arts Council was doing to protect staff and applicants with gender critical views.

I was so shocked that a public funder could suggest some organisations or individuals shouldn’t be funded I made a complaint, under the whistleblowing policy, to the Arts Council’s Chair Sir Nick Serota, that the Nolan Principles guiding public life had been breached.

A few weeks later a petition was launched online internally asking for signatures towards a collective grievance against gender critical staff members, circulated on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ staff group which collected over 140 signatures and many foul comments. I made another complaint, under the harassment policy, and in the end both of my complaints were investigated together by the Arts Council trustee responsible for Audit and Performance.

Finally, the things I’d been hearing about the sector had happened here at the Arts Council, and what had once been a lovely place to work, for 15 years, felt absolutely toxic. Just as in the arts sector, Arts Council leaders failed to call out harassment and poor behaviour, perhaps afraid, like so many weak leaders, of reputational damage led by an angry mob.”

What happened next?

“In September my complaints that I had been harassed and that the Arts Council had breached the Nolan Principles were not fully upheld. Again, I was shocked – what more evidence was needed?

I ploughed on, but I’d lost faith in the organisation’s executive and trustee leadership, and that meant I found it harder and harder to represent their policies externally, which of course I had to do to do my job properly.

I took my whistleblowing claim to the Secretary of State for Culture. Although my chief executive was questioned at a parliamentary hearing about the circumstances of LGB Alliance’s grant withdrawal, my complaint was not upheld. To this day I believe there should have been an independent investigation.

In September 2022, I lodged my complaint of harassment with ACAS. My employment tribunal was held in May and in June 2023 judgement unanimously upheld my complaint of harassment against the Arts Council. 

My case followed the Forstater Ruling protecting gender critical people under the Equality Act. It is not a binding case, but as this article explains, it does help to illustrate what constitutes harassment and expectations on employers.

Just before the hearing I resigned from the Arts Council, and really felt I couldn’t work in the arts again, because it seemed to have become very censorious, perpetrating some crazy ideas.”

How did this lead to the setting up Freedom in the Arts?

“At the invitation of Baroness Ann Jenkin, I joined Rosie Kay and Dr Laura Favora at a parliamentary event to speak about our experiences of intolerance in our fields to a packed room of cross-party peers and MPs.

Rosie had undertaken some research interviewing leaders and artists. As Rosie explains: ‘One senior leader in the arts described the atmosphere in the sector … as “One of intense fear and loathing.” It is a place of …constant wariness of being watched and monitored, every decision artistic or personal, has the ability to end a career.’

Following this charged meeting it was clear to Rosie and I that a new body was needed to channel the concerns of arts leaders and actively protect artistic freedom. We drew together an advisory group and launched Freedom in the Arts with an open letter, now numbering over 1,300 signatories, at the Battle of Ideas in October 2023.”

I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of a ‘5-year emergency project’. What’s the emergency? And does this mean you only expect FITA to be around for 5 years whether it’s achieved its aims or not?

“Yes, protecting against censorship is of course an ongoing issue. Index on Censorship was established back in 1968 as an “international committee or council that would make it its purpose to support the democratic movement in the USSR.’’ Well … the USSR is no more but Index is still going 50 years later!

But we believe something is happening now in the UK that is not state sanctioned, and also very difficult to evidence and that is self-censorship. We are treating it as an emergency because although we think intolerance has been brewing for a while, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the sense that people could be condemned or are afraid to speak about their views in case they’re castigated in some way, has become really embedded. 

In setting up FITA as a 5-year project we believe we can reverse the censorious trend, helping the arts commit to artistic freedom equipped with the mechanisms, culture and confidence to protect. We hope that in 5 years time Freedom in the Arts won’t be needed, and that artistic freedom is properly recognised as a universal democratic principle and is properly embedded in the UK arts scene. For example, even though the UN adopted the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Arts Council does not have a free speech or artistic freedom policy. Perhaps if they’d had one, and it was central to their work, which you’d think it would be, they may not have found themselves at the wrong end of the law in my case.”

What kind of reception has FITA received so far, and what do you have coming up?

“We have been amazed by the level of support. For all the people that have signed our open letter, many have contacted us privately thanking us for this initiative, including arts leaders and well-known artists.

We’ve developed a programme of work which we’re in discussion with partners about, called ‘Unlearning the Fear Habit’.  We want to grow the confidence of arts workers to feel they can gradually speak freely again, without fear of cancellation or allegations. To do that we need a combination of private and public debates and events, alongside research.”

Thank you Denise!

For those interested in Freedom of the Arts you can join their mailing and/or contact them here.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum.