Bristol’s Watershed Arts Centre was recently censured by the Charity Commission for failing to observe political balance in its programming.
From recent activity it’s not clear it’s learned the lesson.
Watershed is run as a charity which means it has to follow rules on political neutrality. It also receives substantial public funding from Bristol City Council, the Arts Council and the National Heritage Lottery Fund amongst others. It’s a substantial operation turning over £5 million per year.
The complaint that led to the reprimand focused on their ‘annual’ Palestine Film Festival which is actually more frequent than that; with subsidiary Palestine Film festivals during the year. The tone is monotonous anti-Israel activism.
The Senior Charity Commission Case Officer Mazeda Alam told Watershed that:
the charity has either strayed into political activity, or has enabled this perception to be reached, through events such as the opening night of the 2012 Palestinian Film Festival . We consider that the discussion as recorded on the transcript you provided was not representative of the divergent views on the subject, and that it strayed away from content related to the charity’s objects (film as visual art) into expressions of political views.
Watershed got off lightly; for some reason the charity commission chose not to engage with the following serious allegations:
- A curator who glamourises terrorists (Annemarie Jacir – see p.10 & p.16 of the dossier to the Charity Commission);
- A host who vilifies Jews (Bidisha – see p.9);
- Describing a film which features terrorists as ‘beautiful and intimate‘ (Saken – see p.14);
- A film funded by a terrorist organisation with the screenplay written by a senior member of that terrorist organisation without any context beyond hailing it as a ‘rarely seen gem‘ (PFLP – see p.15);
- Complicity in excluding Israeli funding where it suits them; where the film is not anti-Israel (Encounters v Villa Touma – see p.18);
- Removal of all details of previous festivals to prevent scrutiny. (see p.6)
All contained in a thorough dossier which can be read by clicking here.
One event the Charity Commission found in breach of regulations was a discussion between Bidisha, Ken Loach and Leila Sansour, the verbatim transcript of which can be read by clicking here.
As Watershed prepares for its December Palestine Film Festival the signs are not positive; it has not acknowledged there is any issue, and not explained how it will do things differently.
As part of its current programming it is featuring an Israeli film, Censored Voices – click here for details . But if it’s a nod to balance it’s not a very successful one; it’s an Israeli film condemning IDF conduct in the Six Day War. It’s not a view necessarily shared, for example, by Colonel Richard Kemp, the UK’s former Commander in Afghanistan – click here.
Censored Voices is part of the debate an open and pluralist society, like Israel, needs to have, but it is not the whole picture and in the context of a relentless partisan activism on the part of Watershed it is an ongoing breach of Charity law.
UPDATE DECEMBER 2015:
The 2015 Watershed Bristol Palestine Film Festival is not going ahead. The Watershed has not given any reason and made no announcement. It is the first time in 5 years the Festival will not go ahead and all indications were it would go ahead as normal.
Watershed has continued to maintain that “Watershed has not breached Charity Commission regulations” and “these allegations are unfounded” but they have published the letter from the Charity Commission to them. In addition to taking issue withe the way they run discussions (see above) the Charity Commission also told them:
“We also consider that the decision (by the trustees / the charity) to close the 2014 Festival “with the launch of Open Bethlehem, an international campaign to keep Bethlehem open to the world” could be regarded as straying into political campaigning, not linked to the charity’s objects.”