Brian Ferguson: Gathering storm over T in the Park

T in the Park at Strathallan Castle' earlier this year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
T in the Park at Strathallan Castle' earlier this year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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THIS is always a special week in my calendar. I was just getting my feet under the table as The Scotsman’s arts correspondent when the nation’s new arts agency was engulfed in a full-blown crisis. Three years ago this week, 100 leading artists effectively declared war on Creative Scotland – the quango launched in the summer of 2010 to much fanfare about a new era for the arts in Scotland.

The “Creative Scotland Stoooshie”, as it became commonly known, was a deeply uncomfortable time for culture secretary Fiona Hyslop, who was only a few months into her job when its first chief executive, Andrew Dixon, was appointed. He was to become the target of much of the criticism during 2012 – designated by the SNP government as “The Year of Creative Scotland” – and had resigned by Christmas.

But by the following summer, memories of those dark few months were melting away. With a single, carefully pitched speech at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh – delivered just before Creative Scotland announced Mr Dixon’s replacement, Janet Archer – she appeared to win over many of its critics. Distancing herself from the kind of dogma that Mr Dixon’s regime had been criticised for, she insisted the arts could and should not be measured as an economic commodity. She said memorably: “We do not measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence.”

For the next couple of years, with audiences for cultural events booming, there was a strong impression, to many, of Ms Hyslop as someone who could do no wrong.

My, how times have changed. She may well be rueing the day she agreed to sign off an 11th-hour bail-out for Scotland’s biggest music festival. The row over the provision of “state aid” to T in the Park has been mounting ever since The Scotsman was alerted to details of an unannounced grant appearing on the Scottish Government’s website, several weeks after the event had taken place.

Although there had been speculation of financial problems being experienced by promoter DF Concerts in the run-up to the first festival at the Strathallan Estate, it was only then that the scale of the behind-the-scenes problems became crystal clear. It was obvious there were serious questions to answer about why £150,000 had to be quietly allocated to an event that its promoters had insisted was a “fantastic” success.

The SNP has done nothing to dispel the claims of “cronyism” and “a done deal” being agreed for T in the Park ever since it emerged that Jennifer Dempsie, a former aide to Alex Salmond, had helped secure its financial help. New revelations have increased suspicions that the normal rules for funding cultural events were tossed aside.

Ms Dempsie, employed by DF Concerts as a consultant to help with the relocation to Strathallan, has already given up a bid for election to Holyrood since her involvement was revealed.

With unanswered questions stacking up and demands that she reappear before MSPs, Ms Hyslop will do well to survive the gathering storm. Her main line of defence has been the potential loss of T in the Park to Scotland had state aid not been forthcoming.

What has been almost forgotten in the ongoing furore is that the festival’s promoters were forced to quit their previous site at Balado over concerns about the safety of an underground pipeline. With the benefit of hindsight, the move to Strathallan now looks to have been badly rushed. However, the clear impression has been created that they were holding a gun to the head of Ms Hyslop just weeks before the festival was due to be staged. Both parties will have their work cut out if their badly-damaged reputations are to be repaired.