5th March 2013
The respected author and broadcaster, Norman Lebrecht, has written a brief piece on his blog ‘Slipped Disc’ criticising Shell Out Sounds’ performance on Friday night. It is unclear whether Lebrecht was at the concert himself but he suggests that the concert was ‘disrupted by a small group of geo-activists’. The Guardian piece, to which he refers, uses our performance as a basis for considering the broader issue of oil sponsorship of the arts and offers a balanced view with the purpose of furthering debate. We would like to make several comments in response to Mr. Lebrecht’s blog.
Firstly, the performance took place during the concert’s interval in order to show solidarity with the concert’s performers and audience. Respect was shown to staff and audience members. The two performances by Shell Out Sounds were both met with supportive applause from those nearby, although may not have been heard by everyone present due to the size of the foyer space. Also, a number of composers, including Matthew Herbert, Steve Martland and Jem Finer, have already indicated their support for the issues we raised, in addition to music academics and concertgoers. Many have expressed their concern through an open letter to the Southbank’s Executive Director, Alan Bishop, and we invite those who are supportive to add their name.
Secondly, the term ‘geo-activists’ which he uses to describe the performers is misrepresentative. The concerns of Shell Out Sounds include human rights issues. For example, Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta have been investigated extensively by Amnesty International. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report heavily criticises Shell and states that ‘The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.’ The concerns of Shell Out Sounds also include the encroachment upon the land of Indigenous peoples in Canada and disregard for their land rights. One such community – the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation – is currently suing Shell over these issues. Lebrecht’s own website describes his blog as ‘campaigning against human abuse and acts of injustice in the cultural industries’. We hope to perhaps find solidarity from Mr. Lebrecht in this aspect of our campaign.
Thirdly, he describes Shell as a ‘generous patron’. However, only 5% of the Southbank Centre’s funding came from corporate sponsorship in 2010/2011 (£2.16 million) and Shell is one of seventeen corporate sponsors and supporters. Meanwhile, Shell has spent in excess of $65 million supporting Nigeria’s military task force and nearly $5 billion on failed attempts to drill in the Arctic. Also, Shell may donate money seemingly with ‘no strings attached’ but this sponsorship does not exist in an ethical vacuum. Shell commissions on-going research into its public perception. While Shell is perceived as being socially responsible it is able to continue with its activities, acquiring what is referred to as a ‘social license to operate’. Shell undertakes strategic sponsorship of cultural institutions in order to create and maintain this perception. This is distinct from philanthropy, which is purely concerned with generosity.
This response has not yet addressed the question of climate change but even without it there is an overwhelming case for bringing Shell’s sponsorship to an end. To try and assess Shell’s contribution to climate change would be a mammoth task. However, we would like to clarify two points in regard to Mr. Lebrecht’s closing comment that ‘I understand that some climate campaigners have a gripe against the oil industry. They should set an example to the rest of us by turning out all lights at home.’ Firstly, members of Shell Out Sounds travelled to the performance by bike and public transport (thus minimising the use of oil – turning off the lights wouldn’t make any difference there as electricity doesn’t tend to come from oil). But much more importantly, dealing effectively with the issue of climate change necessarily involves actions beyond individual lifestyle choices. Members of Shell Out Sounds are particularly concerned with climate justice – the direct human cost of climate change, which extends from issues of fuel poverty in the UK to the exacerbation of hunger in the developing world. We do intend to set an example, by speaking out on the problems with unaccountable corporate power, inappropriate arts sponsorship and global oil industry destruction, in the hopes of furthering the transition to fossil-free cultural institutions in a fossil-free world. We hope this will encourage more people within the arts world to do the same.
Shell Out Sounds members are all lovers of the arts and supporters of the Southbank Centre. However, drawing upon a quotation from the conductor Claudio Abbado, ‘Our line is very clear. We are for freedom. Everything that is not for freedom, we protest.’