The arts are in crisis. OK, it was ever thus. But just recently the crisis has certainly turned into a drama. Accusations and resignations at the Royal Opera House and Royal Academy, government u-turns over free admissions to museums, much-loved theatres threatening to go dark.
The usual suspects have been fingered for the blame: the Treasury for underfunding, and increasingly the more visible targets of poor management, incompetence and even malpractice.
But a new theory has surfaced. According to an extremely eminent figure in the arts, there is a more sinister catalyst for crisis. It is those philistines in the press, so called arts writers who have the cheek to probe and investigate aesthetic Britain instead of leading the applause for artists, patrons and administrators and damning the philistinism of government. That, after all, is what arts writers are expected to do.
This is worrying because it comes not from one who has spent their life in the arts, but from a recent convert who was previously one of the country's most respected journalists: John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre and former head of the BBC World Service.
Tusa's J'accuse may have been missed by some as it was delivered at the St Cecilia Festival Lunch, a gathering of the great and the good from the world of music in honour of their patron saint. The nub of his argument bears repeating here. This is what he said.
"Hardly a day goes by without fresh news of financial trouble at one of the great national institutions - the Royal Opera, English National, Royal Shakespeare, and so on - and make no mistake about it, they are not just great and national, they are international too. Everyone abroad recognises their quality? Why can't we?
"Artistic directors and administrators have replaced football managers as public whipping boys and girls. Whose head will roll next? But, as one distinguished opera director observed to me `unlike football managers, we are not judged by results. Our productions can be marvellous, but we still get pilloried by the Press.'
"For the press, even the respectable part of it, it is a question of `who is the next target in the arts?' Last summer, a well known arts reporter said to me `we have done for Covent Garden; it will be ENO next.' Now as a journalist myself, I do not blame everything on the press. I do not believe that the performing arts crisis is got up by the press, but I do think arts reporting follows a general current of public mood that is at best indifferent to the performing arts and at worst actively hostile. It is difficult to see where the arts writers themselves stand on the issue of the arts crisis, as distinct from reporting on it. Ladies and gentlemen, whose side are you on? Because if it does not matter to you whether the great British orchestras and opera companies flourish or survive, then we are in a desperate state indeed."
Whose side are you on? What, I wonder, would Mr Tusa have said, if a government minister had asked him that question when he was head of the World Service? I suspect he would have said he was on the side of objectivity, journalism that consisted of talking to people in the field, reporting them and making analytical judgements based on the evidence.
Yet people in the arts refuse to believe that normal journalistic rigours should apply to arts reporting. Teachers do not expect education correspondents to give them uncritical support. Generals do not get fan mail in print from defence reporters. Arts reporting too needs scrutiny of its field, the sort of scrutiny indeed that asked questions about the Barbican Centre under its previous head, Baroness O'Cathain, who eventually resigned and made way for Mr Tusa.
Of course love of the arts does play a sizeable part in what we write. I have campaigned, for example, in this paper to make cultural spaces more accessible to people by removing parked cars, and have achieved success. At the moment we are concentrating our reporting on maintaining free admission to national museums. There are many other examples.
But equally I plead guilty to many other arts stories which would not pass the Tusa test - revealing that the Royal Opera House was paying Sir Jeremy Isaacs for a year after he left, or that the Arts Council was meeting in emergency session over the ethics of Mary Allen's appointment as chief executive. Such pieces do not concentrate on "the quality of the work." But they give an inkling into how the arts in this country are run.
Arts reporting is a relatively new specialism in British journalism. Until 10 years ago it was the domain of critics who would occasionally turn their hand to writing a story. They would normally be based in arts departments. Now, the arts are seen as news specialisms on a par with education, health and the environment, and arts reporters are based in newsrooms.
They are not cheerleaders, and it would actually be a denigration of the importance of the arts in our national life if the management and production of artistic endeavour was reported uncritically. As it is, the vast amount of space given to previewing, much of it uncritical, should do something to ease Mr Tusa's worries.
It is often said that arts administrators rapidly go native. This usually means that acute business people leave their brains outside with their briefcases when they join an arts board, say the board of the Royal Opera House, and forget their business acumen. Mr Tusa has gone native in a different way. He has left his journalistic rigour at the artists' entrance of the Barbican Centre.
The writer is arts news editor of The Independent.
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