Friday, May 10, 2013

Skeptics In The Cardiff Central Library

As with many twitter based stories, very quickly misunderstandings, assumptions and speculation can create a storm in a tea-cup. That's not to say that there is nothing to the story of how Cardiff Skeptics had their request to hold two events turned down. As the person involved in correspondence with the library over the matter, I thought it best to set out some of the facts.

On April 10th Cardiff Skeptics received a request via email to help curate an evening event at Cardiff Central Library. The event takes place on Friday 24th May, starting at 7 and finishing at 9. I myself was not available, but I got in touch with fellow skeptic Dean Burnett who was happy to help out. The event features Jon Ronson doing a talk before a Q&A session and then some book signing. This is pretty much the same start time and format as any Cardiff SITP event.

The library staff member who contacted me (we'll refer to him as Jason) also made it clear that the library, although disimilar to our usual venue (no alcohol), would be happy to help out with future events if we were interested.

This was serndipitous as I had two big names booked for June and July and needed a larger venue to cater for the resulting greater attendance.

Jason told me that if events are free then the library would be happy to host it, but paid ticketed events may be an option. During the daytime they could host 60 people but could accomodate up to 100 after hours.

I told Jason that SITP events aren't free as we need to be able to cover speakers' expenses such as travel, food and sometimes hotel. I then revealed that the two speakers we had booked were John Sweeney and Prof David Nutt.

On April 18th Jason replied, saing that if we ticketed the event and included a £1 charge on each ticket which went to the library then it should be fine. He mentioned that Cardiff libraries may be concerned about the controversial nature of the talks and that if we were still interested he would find out if there was an issue.

I followed up confirming we were still interested and confirmed the nature of the talks.

On April 21st Jason replied to inform me that he'd spoken to the library manager and that they'd in turn be speaking to the management team the following Monday.

Noticing that a publicly owned venue may potentially be blocking us due to the nature of the talks I politely enquired about guidelines about who can and can't use the venue.

Jason replied, citing Cardiff Council's equalities plan, Everybody Matters. Anything that went against its equalities plan would be a no no (therefore no EDL etc).

On May 7th I sent another email to Jason, asking if a decision had been made.

The next day I received a reply saying that Jason had spoken to the library's manager and that they "wouldn't be able to do them". No explanation was given.

I instantly resigned myself to having to find another venue, not particularly bothered by what I considered simple bureacracy. It was only once I got round to thinking about the context of the refusal that I indulged in two throw-away tweets saying how disappointed I was that the library refused us in te context of controversial speakers and an inclusivity policy.

I expected a few retweets and comments, but I didn't expect to be contacted by the press. The genie was now out of the bottle. Peter Law, journalist for Wales Online and the South Wales Echo contacted me and I gave a short telephone interview. He was also sent a copy of the email exchange with the library for him to verify. He also got in contact with John Sweeney for a quote. His article on the Wales Online website did a good job of summing up the situation.

At the end of yesterday the council offered the following statement:

"We would like to make it clear that Cardiff Council has not refused to allow Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub to hold their event at the library as a result of the nature of the topics to be discussed. Unfortunately in this instance the staff member has given incorrect advice to the organisers as despite the fact that Central Library does hold in-house evening events it is not set up as a night time venue, as there are budget implications in terms of staff costs. On this occasion the library is unable to host the event due to staffing issues. Since there has been a misunderstanding we will work with the organisers to find a suitable venue for their June meeting. And as with all requests, the manager of Central Library is happy to talk directly to the organisers about their proposals and explore the library’s suitability for any events in the future."

So Cardiff Council deny the talks were blocked because of their content. They cite staffing issues as the reason. This all seems very plausible, as many have pointed out. However, it does not address all issues in the correspondence between myself and Jason. 

There is a slight contradiction if we consider Cardiff Council's statement in the context of Jason's emails. Cardiff Council state that the venue is not set up for evening events, even though they admit that they do host evening events (Jon Ronson?)and one of their staff members has openly offered to host evening events. The implication is that Jason was operating outside of his remit.

Adding insult to injury, the library hosted an "Evening of Mediumship" in Janruary. There may be a real problem of staffing on June 17th for our event, but it is over a month away and it is strange that they are so certain that they will not able to make any arrangements by then. Any reference to budgeting is also bizarre as Cardiff Skeptics were happy to ticket the event, raising revenue for the library. If the library really needed certain costs to be paid then why not ask us to pay the hire charge?

They also don't address Jason's expressed concerns about management's apparent concern over controversial talks. Is it suggesting that management actually have no such concerns and Jason's were unfounded?

At the end of it all, the council seem to want to put it all down to miscommunication and shift the blame on to the staff on the shop floor. I am no conspiracy theorist, so I do not doubt the council's statement simply because it's an official statement. But I do not think it goes far enough to address all of the issues and I remain skeptical on all sides.

If there is an audit trail surrounding the decision to not host the event then perhaps a FoI request may help us uncover additional facts that may give us a bit more certainty. I will therefore be drafting a request over the weekend and submitting it first thing on Monday.

In the meantime, Cardiff Skeptics welcome Cardiff Council's offer to help us find an alternative venue and look forward to a positive relationship with them in the future.

John Stabler, Organiser of Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub

UPDATE: An updated version of the story was feature on page 3 of the South Wales Echo and is also on the Wales Online website.