7th November 2023
Spotlight On | Ruth Hogarth, editor, Arts Professional

“Arts Professional looks at what lies behind the decisions that affect people in the sector and provide an independent voice to hold public bodies to account”

Ruth Hogarth is a journalist and editor of Arts Professional, a publication dedicated to the workings of the arts industry.

Having discovered a passion for theatre at a young age, Hogarth made the switch into journalism, forging a career with the BBC in the World Service.

In our latest Spotlight On interview, we talk to Ruth about her route into journalism, marrying her passions with Arts Professional, and the problems facing the arts sector.

You worked in several theatres including the Royal Court in London and the Liverpool Everyman and lectured in theatre studies during the 70s and 80s. What first attracted you to the world of acting, drama and the theatre?

I was a working-class kid from a single-parent family and I went to a very posh girls grammar school, which was miles away. So, I didn’t really have a social life with my school friends.

When I was 14, I came across a local theatre group – that was free – and it became my family. It was an absolute godsend to have this wonderful family of friends. We did everything together all the time. I just loved the community side of it, rather than the acting. But it did engender a passion for theatre, and I grew my love of theatre through that group of people.

You later moved into the world of journalism. Was there a specific moment that made you decide to change path?

It wasn’t a moment, it took place over several years. What’s dispiriting is how similar it is to today. Working in the theatre then as a freelancer was very precarious. There wasn’t any sense that you were ever going to earn enough of a living to own a house or move on with your career: there was no career future.

It was a huge wrench to leave, but I saw the best jobs were held by people who had degrees. So, I decided to go to university. I found I could earn as much in six hours teaching theatre, as I did in 60 hours as a company manager. That paid for me to go to university. So, I got a degree and then went on to study for a postgraduate degree and PhD.

Through that process, I saw an opening at the BBC World Service, and I just thought I’m going to go for it. It was a five-year transition, during which I was doing bits of theatre, bits of teaching, studying, and living with an actor, so I had a foot in both worlds. When I joined the World Service, that was it. It was just so full on. I didn’t have time for theatre anymore. I was in a completely new world.

You spent 20 years working for BBC in a number of roles and for a number of prominent programmes. How did that experience shape you as a journalist and editor?

Absolutely, fundamentally, in every way. Partly because it was the World Service, so it taught you to be a citizen of the world. We inhabited what was a mini–United Nations – spending every day with people from the Arabic or the Russian services, or the Chinese or the Latin American – your whole horizon was opened up, both about what was going on in the world, and the differences between the many cultures. Everything came into focus in a startling way.

But in terms of the journalism, I suppose the most significant lesson was how important language is. Language matters. The way you write really matters. Back then, what you wrote in English was translated into maybe 45 different languages. Every so often, there would be what they called ‘a back translation’ exercise, to check what had been translated against the original story.

If you wrote badly, it came out in Arabic or Mandarin or whichever language, as gobbledygook. So as a journalist, you had to get very good at crystallising your prose and making it unambiguous, and totally clear. I think that’s important in every form of journalism – people misrepresent or are misrepresented or misrepresent themselves by their lack of clarity and their lack of being able to articulate well.

So, it taught me about writing, but also of course about accuracy, always having two sources for any story and about impartiality too. One person’s ‘terrorist’ is another person’s ‘freedom fighter’. The editorial guidelines we were issued back then in the late 80s are still relevant for reporting, in Gaza for example, today.

And it taught me about team working. In broadcast journalism, it’s absolutely vital you work together as a team. This wasn’t the kind of journalism where you could go away and work quietly on you own, like an academic might do writing an article or a book. Everything you did fed into everything other people were doing and, as a 24-hour operation, you had to pick up stories from other people and pass them on again. And it felt vital for our audience around the world. So, it was hugely rewarding.

At the start of 2021 you joined Arts Professional in what sounds like a perfect role considering your career path through the theatre and journalism. What was it that drew you to the publication?

I felt like I’d come home when I joined. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is back where I started in a world I’m passionate about.’ But in between leaving the BBC and joining Arts Professional, I spent a decade in academia working in cultural research management and in cultural partnerships and policy.

I worked on several cultural enquiries for Deborah Bull, now Baroness Bull, who chairs several APPGs (All Parliamentary Party Groups) on cultural matters. And I made lots of important contacts across the sector. So I felt well-equipped to take on the role.

I suppose what made me decide to make the leap and go back to journalism was, like the first time I made a leap, I wanted to get back to the creative stuff. In academia, I was doing all the facilitating and partnerships and management. I wanted to get back to the actual craft of journalism – I love it. It’s a much smaller job, but it’s focused and much more satisfying. And as you said, right up my street in terms of subject matter.

One of Arts Professional’s values is to stand up for what you believe and raise issues other publications can’t. What sort of issues in particular and why is it so important that you do that?

It’s not that other media outlets can’t, it’s that they don’t. It’s not important enough in the food chain – politics, economics, technology, science, climate change – however you prioritise them, arts always tends to be an add-on, something that’s ‘nice to have’. And arts correspondents tend to be people who review shows and exhibitions, rather than investigate issues like policymaking or arts funding.

So, what Arts Professional tries to do is look at what lies behind the decisions that affect people in the sector and provide an independent voice to hold public bodies to account – like the DCMS or Department of Education or Arts Council England, or indeed local authorities. So for example, the Treasury might boast about the arts bring in £x amount GDP, yet they don’t fund them adequately. In the school curriculum, you find music and drama being cut, so where is the new talent going to come from in the future to ensure the UK remains a global leader in the field? These are the kinds of questions we ask.

We also provide people working in the sector with all kinds of relevant news, information and comment about the issues that concern them – be it fundraising and marketing, audience development and digital, diversity and inclusion.

The arts industry has felt significant strain in recent years, particularly with regards to funding. Do you think more should be done to cover these stories in the media and do you think that would make a difference?

I do. But it has to be done in a considered way. At the one end you’ve got academics, who do this stuff incredibly well and, indeed, policymakers within DCMS who are doing fantastic research – that nobody ever reads. Then at the other end, you’ve got the national news media, who will suddenly hear about English National Opera being decimated. They run a story, there’s a huge outcry, and then there’s a backlash about elitist artforms. It becomes an argy-bargy, rather than a reasoned debate and interrogation of what’s really going on.

We do want more arts coverage, but we don’t want it to become media fodder or part of any culture war. You can guarantee that if you run any story about certain issues – bullying, LGBTQ+, discrimination of any kind – it’s like a tinderbox, it’s just takes off. At Arts Professional, we try to lower the emotional temperature around these issues and deal with the arguments in a balanced and independent way, so that our readers can make their own judgements.

You took the decision to join Impress at the start of this year. What was it that attracted Arts Professional to sign up?

There were two reasons. One was pragmatic: for its first 20 years or so, Arts Professional was edited, managed and published by its founders/owners who set up an effective internal complaints policy and procedure. In 2021, the company was sold to the Baker Richards consultancy. From the start, they wanted to ensure the absolute editorial independence of Arts Professional, so that there was no conflict of interest.

We discussed setting up an advisory council, but in the end thought it would not be sufficiently agile or responsive. We’re not a charity with trustees, so we decided that joining a regulatory body would ensure both our editorial independence and integrity.

Obviously, we looked at IPSO and Impress. I was more motivated by the fact that I didn’t think that IPSO had followed through with the full recommendations from the Leveson Inquiry. And I thought Impress would be a better fit for us, in terms of its independence, its compliance with Leveson, and its scale.

What are the main goals of Arts Professional as we head towards the end of the year and into 2024?

That’s a good question. We’re not funded by anybody, we’re a completely commercial operation. In that sense, we are part of the cultural sector. If the sector is suffering, then we are too because our income derives primarily from subscriptions and advertising. Our main goal is to survive what has been a crisis for the last two or three years in the sector. And so far, it’s going well.

But we are developing a new website and have plans to move into different forms of content. We’re also reviewing our readership and subscriptions – like all media organisations – and thinking of ways to leverage income from those with deeper pockets. There’s a huge gap, for example, between a freelance creative and a big university – yet our subscription levels don’t necessarily reflect that.

And editorial partnerships are very important to us too. With their expertise, they provide sponsored content which gains real traction with our readership on issues ranging from disability to digital, audience development to fundraising to research. Extending those partnerships is a key goal. We are also exploring media partnerships for conferences and events. It’s all about visibility.

Ruth Hogarth is a journalist (Editor, Arts Professional) and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London.

Having started her career as a theatre stage manager, Ruth made the move to journalism joining the BBC World Service as a production trainee. She worked for the BBC for 20 years as a producer, presenter, editor and managing editor in news & current affairs and newsgathering, across radio, tv and online.

Ruth also spent 10 years in academia and was a founding Director of the Cultural Institute at King’s College London, working in knowledge exchange and cultural policy. She is a trustee of Artichoke and the British American Drama Academy and sits on the steering group of the Cultural Governance Alliance.