Arts criticism is rarely subject to the same ethical scrutiny as news and sports reporting and is vulnerable to pressure from the arts community, one of Canada’s leading theatre critics told a recent conference on press freedom at Ryerson University.

“Standards of integrity and separation between editorial and advertising do not apply,” former Globe and Mail theatre critic Kamal Al-Solaylee told about 150 students, scholars, journalists and lawyers who attended a panel presentation on press freedom and opinion writing.

Former theatre critic and Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee (Left) and Ottawa Citizen columnist Susan Riley speak about challenges to freedom of expression for journalists

“The picture of arts coverage is bleak,” said Al-Solaylee, who is now an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University’s school of journalism. “The implications for press freedom and freedom of expression are highly underestimated.”

Al-Solaylee described entertainment television shows such as eTalk and Entertainment Tonight as “thinly disguised infomercials for upcoming Hollywood movies.”

While newspapers in Canada do better than television, they “are by no means free” from the outside pressure of advertisers whose concerts, plays, exhibitions and other artistic offerings are written about by critics, Al-Solaylee said.

He suggested that major Canadian cultural organizations such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mirvish Productions, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Canadian Opera Company often try to influence arts coverage.

And he said he is disturbed by an increase in what he calls “back-pedalling reviews” where critics are not impressed by what they have seen but never plainly state it. Al-Solaylee said this trend is evident in reviews of opera, ballet, and books, where book reviewers will rely on plot summaries to avoid having to make any harsh criticisms. One reason for this, he said, is that the Canadian arts community is relatively small and its members are nervous about offending each other.

Al-Solaylee also pointed to what he called “review chill” in the United States, citing the case of American music critic Don Rosenberg.

Rosenberg, a long-time classical music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was less than impressed by concerts under the Cleveland Orchestra’s new conductor. Orchestra officials complained about he negative reviews and in 2008, the newspaper’s editor reassigned Rosenberg. Coincidentally – or not – the publisher of the Plain Dealer was on the Cleveland Orchestra board.

Al-Solaylee said the  line between critics and their subjects is thin, with representatives from major arts organizations often requesting meetings with editors-in-chief and publishers.  When he was the Globe’s theatre critic, he said, members from the board of the Stratford festival visited the newspaper in 2006 to complain about Al-Solaylee’s negative reviews and request more feature stories pertaining to the festival.

Al-Solaylee said the representatives had “barely left the building” before the arts editor at the time commissioned three stories about the festival.

Censorship and restrictions on freedom of opinion aren’t the only issues in the world of arts criticism, said other journalists who appeared on the panel titled You Can’t Say That: Press Freedom and Expression of Opinion. Globe columnist Margaret Wente said that Canadian journalists often censor themselves when covering sensitive issues such as the environment or aboriginal issues. Susan Riley, a long-time columnist at the Ottawa Citizen, said the lack of freedom of information in Canada also inhibits the freedom of journalists to do their jobs.

The panel was moderated by Brian Macleod Rogers, a media lawyer and adjunct professor at Ryerson.

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