Friday, September 23, 2011

Why I have little sympathy for the 'Philharmonic Four'

As an avid reader of newspaper and magazine letters pages, I have often found myself annoyed by people expressing what is clearly a personal opinion, but sending it from their employers' rather than their home address. Academics are particularly guilty of this, and unless they are writing specifically on an issue of professional expertise, there can be no justification for it. Often one suspects they are using their university address to give added gravitas to their opinion on a subject where their opinion is no more expert than anyone else's. At worst author's can give the impression that their view represents that of the institution from which they are writing.

It is in this light that I view the suspension of the so-called 'Philharmonic Four' for signing a letter to the Independent objecting to the participation of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Proms. The signatories of the letter in the Daily Telegraph defending their right to express an opinion are (deliberately or otherwise) missing the point. The problem is not that the four musicians expressed a view publicly, but that they signed the letter as members of their orchestra.

When expressing an opinion publicly, in whatever forum, it's always worth being clear about on whose behalf one is speaking or writing. I post on this blog, and occasionally write elsewhere, in a purely personal capacity. Sometimes I have to speak or write officially as a Lib Dem councillor or group leader, occasionally as an executive member of Watford Borough Council. On the other hand I don't have a public-facing role in my permanent job and would avoid even the appearance of speaking on their behalf - for example by signing letters to the press from work rather than home.

And that's where the Philharmonic Four have come a-cropper. Had they each signed as 'musician', it's hard to see how their bosses at the London Philharmonic could have objected. But unwisely, they chose to mention their employers. Of course, one could argue that it's wrong to punish musicians for a practice that academics get away with all the time. Which would be a fair point. But it would be better all round if people avoided using their employer's name to add gravitas to the public voicing of their personal views.

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