By anyone’s standards, this has been a successful campaign. True, we have not yet ‘won’. However we have collected well over 140,000 members, triggered debates in parliament, won the support of the Mayor of London, blocked two planning applications, and most importantly forced the Southbank Centre to reconsider the destruction of a space so many of know and love, and their plans to turn it into a trough of commercial retail.
If you listen to the textbooks, an important factor in any successful campaign is a fair dosage of positive media coverage. We, however, have been up against a hugely influential and media savvy organisation so, for much of the campaign, we have had to look beyond the mainstream media.
The Southbank Centre is an organisation adept at spin and PR. Their CEO, Alan Bishop, had a career in advertising at Saatchi and Saatchi. His background may in part explain why this ‘world class arts centre’ thought it a fair use of taxpayers money for their campaign featuring three different PR companies to demonise our campaign and the community we represent. Artistic Director Jude Kelly also keeps a well-oiled phone book with extensive links at a number of newspapers. She has written numerous columns dedicated to our eviction in newspapers that are reluctant – and sometimes unwilling – to put even a few sentences of ours in their letters page, let alone a whole article. One Southbank Centre friend, Simon Tait, wrote an article so full of incorrect information it was an embarrassment to journalism. Prompting LLSB to contact The Stage to request a response article from us be published. You can read both articles, and all the public comments, here.
Just recently the apparently investigative Private Eye mislabelled the hundreds of skaters, BMXers, musicians, filmmakers, artists and other creative people who have been a major part of the campaign, as well as the 140,000 who have signed up, as ‘a small numbers of skateboarders’. It may merely have been one glib statement in an article that makes a number of good points about the Southbank Centre’s disorganisation. However it comes in a wider context where those outside the establishment are dismissed as being a minority or obscure standpoint, unworthy of recognition. The Labour party would not be dismissed as a handful of lefties. So as our membership edges closer to, and beyond, that of the major political parties, why are we treated in such a dismissive manner.
Time Out was once the go to magazine for what was ‘edgy and happening’ in London, but now it has the air of a shell of its former self with its finger slowly slipping off the pulse. You would still think this magazine at least would get the importance of Southbank skate spot in London’s cultural landscape. But no. They happily printed the ludicrously false claim by Southbank Centre artistic director, Jude Kelly, which said; ‘By creating this permanent new space we are the first cultural institution in the world to fully recognise that street culture is culture.’ Err really? Time Out deemed it unnecessary to balance the article with a quote from the Undercroft community and instead opted for numerous (not-so) ‘new’ images of the Festival Wing and Hungerford Bridge skatepark designs.
The most recent Time Out comment was of a ‘dingy’ Undercroft and inferred ingratitude by users towards the Southbank Centre’s generous ‘replacement’ stating; ‘that wasn’t enough to placate the many who view the space as ‘the Birthplace of British Skateboarding’’. There are over 140,000 signed up members of LLSB. If Time Out had been even remotely following the campaign, or maybe even in that name of unbiased journalism perhaps asked us even just once for our take on the matter, they would know that it was never a replacement, it was the closing of a unique space and the opening of new programmable space for SBC. There was no connection between them.
Worse than scant journalistic scraps by Private Eye and Time Out, our coverage in the Evening Standard has been spun with so much pro Southbank Centre bias that it became farcical. As the campaign gained momentum from 2013 into 2014, we collected the record number of planning application objections in UK history. A hundred of us carried the boxed up forms, and skated them from Southbank to Lambeth Town Hall. Whilst a number of TV crews came down, our local paper, the Standard, did not show a flicker of interest, despite its ‘The London Evening Standard, bringing you the latest news on Young People as it happens’ claim. Is our young people story too positive to report? Is it because Lily Allen had a new dress on that day that was essential to let people know about?
Later in January, Boris Johnson, famously championed for Mayor by the Standard, came out in support of us. The Southbank Centre promptly withdrew their planning application. The Evening Standard, despite the comical extent of their bias, were unwilling to criticise their much loved Mayor. Instead they decided to run an incredibly patronising editorial targeting only us. We had had our fun. Despite 40 years of love shown to make the space and skateboard scene as good as it could possibly be, despite almost a year of campaigning to save the place from coffee shops and restaurants, apparently ‘now is the time for the skateboarders to see sense.’ Boris Johnson, a man who wears a suit and went to university was not called on to see sense. Nor were the dozens of other suited and booted folk who have helped our course. The only people needing to see sense were the skint kids who love nothing better than to spend all day falling off skateboards at a dingily lit spot in Waterloo. Point is, after each fall, we get right back up again and keep going.
Then in April after a number of extensive interviews that were almost entirely ignored came a double page spread article in the Evening Standard, packed full of petty gossip about who may or may not be involved in the campaign. More irritating than the countless inaccuracies was their insistence on trying to make the campaign seem as glamorous and corporate as possible. Arran Gregory – a skater and user of the Undercroft for decades who designed the LLSB logo entirely out of love – was described as ‘an illustrator who has worked with Ralph Lauren, Coca-Cola and Levi’s’. Readers were given an entirely inaccurate and sensationalised hourly rate for the LLSB lawyer. Whilst countless skaters have shown support for LLSB in interviews in grassroots skate magazines, the Evening Standard decided to focus their attentions on an interview in i-D magazine, shot by a vogue photographer in which local skater, Blondey McCoy, showed Southbank the love that anyone who has spent the best part of their childhood skating there would show. Whilst the campaign has bigger worries, as a bunch of pretty skint mates and the wider resident community, it felt funny and a little insulting for the campaign to suddenly be portrayed as a glamourous fairground packed full of red notes and overpriced clothes. The Standards ‘investigation’ revealed nothing of the culture of passing on old skate clothes and boards to those who cannot afford them. Nothing of the ethos of equality and looking out for others.
Long Live Southbank has always done its best to keep the culture of the Undercroft legit. After all, the very essence and first principle of the campaign is preservation. Dozens of groups email us every week wanting to collaborate with Long Live Southbank to further their own image as an ‘urban’ or ‘underground’ brand or collective. We have dodged those wanting to profiteer from the space and campaign. We have ensured the space remains free from fiscal transaction while the rest of the 21 acre site gets sliced up and sectioned off for commissions, commerce and capital. So it stings when the Standard accuse us of turning the space into an ‘urban circus’. It seems that if you can’t beat ‘em, then you just use your column space to wind them up.
The article was packed full of anonymous sources, often seen as little more than innuendo for made up quotes. The final ‘anonymous source’ took a swipe at Palace, a company founded by lads who have skated at Southbank for decades and who are consequently some of the most passionate campaigners. Or as the ‘anonymous source’ leads you to believe, the passion stems from Palace’s reliance on Southbank for their branding. Not so. When people are as passionate as we are, this far-from-the-truth statement becomes a very low blow.
Then it was Evening Standard editor, columnist and friend of Jude Kelly, Sarah Sands turn to weigh in. Despite intense lobbying by the Southbank Centre, Boris Johnson, as an elected representative of the public, did the right thing and sided with the ever-increasing number of signed up preservationists. Johnson understood the nuances of the case and the rarity of a space with such immense history, community and charisma. Sarah Sands however doesn’t see it this way. Disregarding everything we have articulated over the past year, she glibly writes, ‘in the absence of a more robust argument, it looks like City Hall was spooked.’ This statement is not only unsupported but also near impossible for anyone in the know to believe. Ms Sands claims to be an expert in the Mayor’s ‘entire philosophy for London’, while clearly disregarding his publically available London Plan.
In her final paragraph Sarah Sands abandons any trace of journalistic integrity, patronising us on new levels and tossing in next level bias. Instead of Long Live Southbank, we become ‘Skater Boys’. Note the use of the word ‘Boys’ which casually disregards the large number of female campaigners and makes us all out to be about 11. Nice. Regardless, according to Ms Sands, our media savviness, our lawyer and our (apparent) commercial worth, we are the new ‘Establishment’. That’s funny because all our chairs for the campaign table are broken, as is our wobbly trolley. The table itself was borrowed off a mate. We’ve been borrowing scissors from Eat almost every day for who knows how long, stored our boxes at Ping Pong and been given use of the BFI’s photo copying machine on occasion. Oh, if only Sarah Sands knew the beast she’d just labelled establishment.
In her final paragraph Sarah Sands lays out her ‘solution’ for our home to become ‘shops that sell skating gear to pay for the Royal Festival Hall extension’. Disregarding the local community groups and tens of thousands of people who have clearly voiced they do not want shops, regardless of what they are. According to Sarah Sands our skate spot home is comparable to Selfridges. Reality has just left the building. According to Sarah Sands and her artistic and cultural hierarchy and snobbery, we the skaters and Undercroft community should be wholly and singularly responsible for developing and paying for everyone else. Despite the greater creative community being completely opposed to the destruction of the Undercroft and our community. Oh, but she didn’t feel any research was worthy of her time. It is her closing line where the clinging fingernails of credibility finally gave way; ‘It is the poor homeless violinists who have no powerful backers’ – now that is a Sarah Sands/Jude Kelly conversation we would love to have been present at. Instead we collectively laughed out loud for a good few minutes as we discussed how closely some journalists unintentionally sail to comedy, while we considered the real issue of homelessness; food, shelter, safety, and the last controversial Southbank Centre eviction – Cardboard City. The removal of the homeless.
The constant Southbank Centre propaganda line being spun by the media is that the redevelopment was ‘to be paid for by restaurants and shops’, and these could only exist in our spiritual and physical Undercroft home. We were present each time Southbank Centre directors publically verbalised the shops would generate 11 million pounds, later revised to 12 million, and revised again to 17 million. The redevelopment scheme is actually priced at a cost of £177 million. But maths and facts are seemingly unimportant when it comes to printing articles about the LLSB campaign.
Whilst others, such as London Live and especially the Guardian have been kinder, the Standards’ reportage has shucked of a journalistic class struggling to comprehend how a group who don’t rock suits or do champagne handshakes have come so far. Despite cameras being down at Southbank on an almost daily basis, a single portrayal of our culture from the mainstream media that is in anyway realistic is a very rare sight indeed. Nobody has managed to put across the atmosphere of the place to a wider audience. Over the last year dozens of us have spent time in front of cameras, in TV and radio studios. We have almost always come away feeling disillusioned and patronised. It was the reporters from China and Dubai that scratched beyond the surface and invested time and effort to understand the culture and community beyond the presumption. When a LLSB representative spoke of our story on a London radio show, they played Avril Lavigne’s skater boy, a song sung drunkenly by shouty men outside pubs at skaters every Friday night, the world over. A song almost skaters hate more than hate itself.
We noted through this process that mainstream media print press releases from the Southbank Centre virtually word for word, and without so much as checking whether any of the content was actually even true.
But as we say, perhaps our story is just too positive a story of independently active young people. And they wonder why young people don’t listen to the mainstream version of the news. They wonder why young people don’t listen to their radio stations and TV channels and buy their newspapers. Maybe it’s time for the media to check themselves. We understand where communications and culture are headed in an ever-changing world. We understand news.
LLSB responds to letters printed in the Evening Standard:
6th February 2014: ‘See sense on Southbank’ By Naomi Selig
Naomi is a clinical psychologist who worked on a Southbank Centre concert with SBC regular, Gary Crosby, in 2013
17th April 2014: ‘Skaters need to move on’ by Bedir Bekar
Bedir works with Iain Borden, employed by the Southbank Centre on their Hungerford Bridge project
22nd September 2014: ‘Hollow Victory’ by Tania Morrison
Tania is government relations manager for Shell, neighbours of the Southbank Centre