Me and my blog

Follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A BBC briefing for John Whittingdale MP about the folk awards - and my response

More on anonymous folk awards judges.

In December I wrote to John Whittingdale MP, who is chairman of the government's culture, media and sport select committee, which has oversight of the BBC, asking if he could look into the anonymity of the folk awards' judges. It may be worth a catch up on that.

Then a week or so ago I received a reply, which had been sent to Mr Whittingdale by Andrew Scadding, the head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs (below), a document that describes the status quo.

Here it is.

Radio 2 Folk Awards – briefing for John Whittingdale

The Radio 2 Folk Awards

·       The BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards celebrate outstanding achievements during the previous year within the field of folk music.  
·       Since its inception in 1999 the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards been responsible for introducing over 400 folk artists from grass roots level, via the Horizon Award and the Young Folk Award, to mainstream audiences.
·       Some of our past Horizon Award winners are now listed amongst the most respected folk artists in the world. Karine Polwart, who went on to win Folk Singer of the Year, is one of Scotland’s most prominent and respected singer songwriters. Cara Dillon, Julie Fowlis (now co-presenter of the Folk Awards) Blair Dunlop and Kris Drever of the band Lau, are all past Horizon Award winners.
·       This year alone, two of the artists nominated for Folk Singer of the Year, Bella Hardy and Lucy Ward first appeared on Radio 2 as finalists of the Young Folk Award.
·       We are very proud that there is such a quantifiable and measureable positive effect on the careers of artists such as these, in a genre of music that does not often achieve the mainstream attention it deserves. By looking back over the 15 years of the Radio 2 Folk Awards we can see how many of our fledgling grass roots artists have developed into internationally successful performers.

The Specialist Panel

The Awards ‘Best Original Song’ and ‘Best Traditional Track’ are awarded by a specialist Panel.  The Panel comprises of people with professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry.  The Folk Awards Committee nominates and oversees the panel.

The Specialist Panel for 2014 are:
·       Ian Anderson - Editor, Roots Magazine
·       Bruce MacGregor - Presenter, Travelling Folk (BBC Scotland)
·       Frank Hennessy – Presenter Celtic Heartbeat (BBC Radio Wales)
·       Jon Lewis – Producer Radio 2 Folk Show – Smooth Operations
·       Karine Polwart – Musician, Song Writer and Previous Award Winner

The Young Folk Award

A shortlist of 10 acts is selected from all the entries submitted to the Young Folk Award competition.  These 10 acts are then invited to a Performance weekend, which culminates in a performance concert from which a specialist panel of judges, comprising musicians and industry personnel, determine a winner. 

The judging panel for this year’s Young Folk Awards are:
·       Steve Heap – Director, Mrs Casey Music
·       Pete Lawrence – Founder, The Big Chill and Cooking Vinyl
·       John Spiers – Musician, Bellowhead
·       Rachael McShane – Musician, Bellowhead
·       Kellie While – Producer, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards

The Best Album Vote

The top five ‘Best Albums’ nominated by the Folk Awards voting panel (see below) are put to a public vote on Radio 2.

The Folk Awards judges

·       Aside from ‘Best Original Song’, ‘Best Traditional Track’, the Young Folk Award and the Best Album, all other Folk Awards nominees are chosen by a voting panel which is made up of approximately 190 people.  The Panel is comprised of those persons who have a professional or semi-professional interest in the folk industry, i.e. folk festival and folk club organisers, journalists, presenters, record company personnel, folk music academics, etc.
·       Folk Music is a small music sub-genre.  Although very few folk artists are attached to major labels some do have record companies of reasonable size, such as Proper, who have large budgets and a marketing team. However, the vast majority of folk artists still run their own small labels and are genuine cottage industries.
·       There is no doubt that within the folk genre there is a great professional boost for people who win a folk award, which although perhaps small compared to a Brit Award or a Mercury win, it is measurable.
·       If the voting panel were published there would be an incentive for the major and better off record companies to lobby the panellists to influence their vote. This would disadvantage many of the smaller, self-releasing nominees who could not afford the cost of this lobbying. Each year the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards throws up new names that would probably not get such an opportunity if there were to be heavy lobbying from better off artists. 
·       In its current form the Folk Awards do present a genuine level playing field that could be jeopardised if we change our voting system.
·       The process used is in line with other major award events such as the Brits and is regularly and rigorously examined by BBC compliance and Editorial Policy.

The voting system

The Awards are determined by two rounds of voting by the wider Folk Awards Panel:

·       Round One: The Voting Panel of approximately 190 people are asked to nominate up to three artists in each category.  To avoid any possible conflict of interest, panellists are not permitted to nominate artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  Managers, agents, publicists or record company members of staff, are not allowed to vote for any artist(s) that they represent.

·       Round Two: Each Panellist can vote for one nomination in each category.  Panellists are not permitted to vote for artists with whom they have a close professional interest.  These votes are counted by the BBC & Smooth Operations and the nominee with the most votes in each category is declared the recipient of the award.  Only the winner with the most votes is recognised, and no other results are released (i.e. there are no runners up). In the event of a tie, that is more than one artist receiving the same highest number of votes, then the award will be made jointly to all the artists. 

The Folk Awards Committee

The Folk Awards Committee consists of five people, who oversee the Folk Awards and also select the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. 

The Folk Awards Committee 2014 are:
·       John Leonard – Managing Director, Smooth Operations (Chair)
·       Kellie While – Head of Programmes, Smooth Operations
·       Mark Simpson – Producer Bob Harris Show, BBC Radio 2
·       Mark Ellen – Music specialist
·       Al Booth  – Specialist Editor BBC Radio 2

Nominated Representatives

The BBC & Smooth Operations appoint nominated representatives that are responsible for monitoring the voting. They will ensure that votes are properly collected and counted and that the process is conducted in line with the rules as well as the BBC's Editorial Guidelines on Awards. Nominated Representatives are not permitted to vote either as part of the Voting Panel or The Folk Awards Committee.  Smooth Operations keep and store all nomination and voting papers on behalf of the BBC for three years following each award ceremony.

Nominated Representatives for 2014 are:
·       Louise Whitehead – Project Manager, Smooth Operations
·       Fergus Dudley – Editor, Editorial Standards BBC Radio 2, 6 Music & Asian Network

By way of reply I wrote Mr Whittingdale this email.

Dear Mr Whittingdale,

I'm very grateful indeed for your interest in this matter, which I know many other people have also emailed you about. 

Thanks for forwarding me the briefing note from Andrew Scadding, the head of the BBC's public and corporate affairs, explaining the folk awards voting procedure. Everything in it was also covered in my submission to you, so unfortunately this takes us no further forward: the BBC's briefing note was a description of the status quo. However, I would like to work to eliminate the trouble with the status quo.

Chief among my concerns are

* There is no oversight of the judging of most these awards - though by saying that the judges are expected not to vote for their own bands, it is accepted that there is an inherent conflict of interests in asking those financially involved to do the judging. Yet the judging is apparently done on a trust basis. The judges all work in the folk industry, meaning that many gain financially from the outcome. The concern here is that this may be a reason why the same bands get nominated year after year, since the same 190 or so judges are on the panel every year, while the tsunami of talent within the genre that does not have connections among this group does not get nominated. At least, this remains the suspicion because...

* The BBC's own website states that all award ceremonies should be conducted with transparency, as we would expect of any publicly funded body.

And yet the names of the judges - of whom there are apparently 190 - are not public. This is in contravention of the BBC's own guidelines about transparency, as well as of common sense on the matter. Keeping the running of any organisation fair and above board involves opening it up to scrutiny, as you are well aware in your role as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport committee. Interestingly, the public naming of the judges for four of the awards has only been happening for two years - since I have been campaigning on this issue - and was done in response to my campaign. See this, which contains what the BBC's Fergus Dudley said to me about it when the changes were made.

The existence of the four awards voted for by the named panel is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the secrecy at the heart of the folk awards is a problem.

* The mechanism designed to fix the two problems above - the lacks of oversight and transparency - is the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately it doesn't work. Nonsensically it currently allows the BBC to say that anything it does is journalism - when this is not the case - allowing the BBC to avoid exactly the scrutiny that the act was intended to facilitate. Thus when I submitted a Freedom of Information request for the names of the folk awards judges my request was denied on the grounds that the awards ceremony is "journalism". This is clearly a self-serving travesty of the English language of which the BBC should be unworthy.

The first two of these three problems could be addressed by making the names of the 190 judges public and the third - the inadequacy of the Freedom of Information act - needs addressing by the government, I hope beginning with yourself and your committee. Because the three problems are linked I have approached you in the hope that you will take the matter in hand, as it is within your remit to do as committee chairman.

Since it seems to have become central to the BBC's justification of its behaviour in this matter, I would like to address the contention that making the names of the judges public would open them up to lobbying by "large record companies". Two points

* If susceptibility to bribery is a serious concern, then having such a large, unaccountable judging body would tend to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it, since I understand it is well-known within the community of judges who most of them are, even if it is not by the rest of us. Addressing the fear of bribery would surely involve choosing a far smaller panel - a different one every year - of judges who are open-minded and fair, yet who are also the master of their own opinions. People with reputations to protect, rather than an unaccountable crowd. Make their names public and any bias will be open to scrutiny.

* The only meaningful way to lobby the folk awards on behalf of music is to play it to the judges. These days technology has made it just as easy and basically free for a small independent record company to send an email with a link to YouTube or Soundcloud as it is for EMI or Atlantic records. To deploy the argument about lobbying by big business is, more than anything else, to illustrate the extent to which those who run these awards are unaware of the technological advances that have been taking place around them in recent years and, in particular, their applications in the music industry. Technology has made their argument redundant - unless there is something inherently corrupt about their chosen judges.

I would also like to address the contention in the BBC's briefing note that the folk industry in this country is a small one. 

* In this context it is a self-fulfilling argument because the folk awards are themselves the biggest marketing platform that folk has in England and Wales. To say that folk is a small concern when an English folk band, Mumford & Sons, is the biggest band in the world is to betray a kind of complacency that condemns all who rely on these awards to project them on to an international stage to a kind of BBC-enforced mediocrity. And this at a time when folk is undergoing a massive revival in terms of of popularity and volume of musicians.

Also, the idea that the BBC folk awards are in any way equivalent to the Brits is without merit as the Brits are not run by the BBC and are thus not subject to the BBC's guidelines about transparency and oversight. The only organisational thing they have in common is that this year the two ceremonies are occurring on the same night, simultaneously. This, incidentally, is a marketing disaster for the folk awards.

Folk, acoustic and roots music in the UK needs an awards ceremony that reflects the industry today in all its glory and not simply the financial concerns of a small number of friends and colleagues of the organiser, John Leonard of Smooth Operations, who first employed most of the arguments put forward in your briefing note - allegedly written by Andrew Scadding - over two years ago.

The BBC should name the 190 judges of the Radio 2 folk awards because its own guidelines say it should and it is the right thing to do. Why would it not?

I hope I can rely on your continued integrity in this matter: I am very grateful for your interest and work so far. 

Yours in all sincerity
Emma Hartley

* If anyone else is interested in writing to John Whittingdale on this matter he can be reached at I will now be addressing the other members of the culture media and sport select committee

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter at @emma1hartley


  1. I worry that you hop from journalism to advocacy/campaigning when it suits, Emma.

    You've succeeded in putting some interesting information in the public domain by asking questions of the BBC, and I expect many would applaud your ability to bring some scrutiny to bear on the awards.

    Isn't it disingenuous to report on the awards as a journalist whilst simultaneously trying to change them? There are thousands of stakeholders here; artists, labels, organisers, fans all have something to say about the awards, and there is nothing approaching a consensus that I can see. Wouldn't it be better to share what you've found and start a discussion? You seem to have already decided what's best.

  2. Hi Tom. What's your second name and are you involved in the folk awards?

    I'm trying to find out the names of the judges. It's that straightforward, has been from the outset. Think of it as campaigning journalism, if that helps: a fairly widely understood form. However, this is a blog - my blog. I'm entitled to mix and match as much as I like. That's the beauty of digital.

    I take it from your comment that, for reasons you haven't shared, you wish I would stop pursuing this?

  3. Since when did the words 'campaigning' and 'journalist' cease to collocate in your lexicon, Tom?

    In case you are new to the discussion, there was not even an issue as far as most people were concerned before Ms Hartley began asking questions a few years ago.

    What in your view would be the proper place for such a discussion? (A bit of open, participatory democracy might be precisely what is needed to persuade ordinary people that they still matter to someone, somewhere in authority). But the BBC closing ranks with the other suits by hiding behind the Freedom of Information Act, just because they can (at least for the moment) surely cannot be the right way to go?

  4. Oh for gods sake here we go again. Wind your neck in.

  5. I see. Are you keen that people should ask fewer questions in life generally, or simply that I should stop pursuing this line of inquiry? I don't think we've met, Steve. But lovely to make your acquaintance.

  6. Its all a matter of whether this does any good and if it is really that important. Some of the same artists names cropping up in successive years is a bit of an issue, agreed, but from what I can see the people running the folk awards are unlikely to be that corrupt.From the response you've had I'd say they have made a decent effort to answer your queries and I can only see the Folk Awards doing good things at the moment too. maybe They could do better if we all made helpful instead of critical suggestions? I couldn't care less who the judges all are but I can guess 50% of them I suspect!

  7. This is an interesting read. The folk awards as I know them have gone from something quite small to something quite massive. I don't doubt, as in all things that become more and more corporate the original idea, which despite a few suspected warts, has served folk rather well? may have become increasingly politicised as its evolved. The folk awards supported by the BBC will not be unique in this, it seems to be all around us. I can well imagine that the original concept and system may not now be the animal that was at first designed. I would also not be surprised if this evolution has been brought about by short term expediency (with corporate considerations pressing heavily) rather than underhand artifice. I'm sure the debate will progress and look forward to further developments but in the main I have to say that since Smoothoperations have been involved the profile of folk and roots music has been raised up to unprecedented heights. Overall, this surely must be a good thing whilst at the same time I could seldom criticise anyone for trying to help a good thing be better.

  8. Keep up the great work, Emma. It's quite obvious that some just don't like to have the boat rocked. I applaud your doggedness, and assure you that you speak on behalf of many artists like myself that have always viewed the Folk Awards, and the structure that lay behind it as everything other than transparent and inclusive.

  9. Thanks, Emma. Very interesting. Three things: 1) I think that the BBC Folk Awards are a Good Thing and have raised the profile of folk immensely - and I'm grateful for that. 2) Having said this, I do believe that the larger, well-financed record companies have the resources to discover who are the movers and shakers on the folk awards judging panel (especially if they have representatives on it themselves), while the smaller companies and individuals are not, therefore the point about lobbying is invalid because some people are in a position to do it already, and 3) I believe that the BBC's folk programme itself is a gateway to being noticed by the judges. If an artist (or song) has not been played on the BBC in the qualifying year they won't get a look-in at the BBC Folk Awards, therefore the BBC is the gatekeeper of its own awards. Thgough it's not written down anywhere, 'Not on the playlist' effectively equals 'not in the awards'. There's a wealth of talent out there that never gets BBC airplay.

    And the fourth of my three points is that while the BBC is supporting the Folk Awards, there is a worrying pattern of repeatedly eliminating local radio folk programmes which were always the lifeblood of the various local folk scenes, not only playing a wide selection of music independent of any playlists, but also broadcasting a live gig diary and encouraging people to get out there and see and hear folk for themselves. It's no coincidence that as the local radio folk programmes have diminished, so have the local folk clubs and small gigs.


Emma Hartley blog logo

24hourlondon logo

Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?