There have been a lot of articles in the press recently regarding sexual assaults at festivals, including some inaccurate comments made about The Secret Garden Party. This concerns me on a number of levels, not least the fact that my husband is the founder of The Secret Garden Party, a festival that I equally love with all my heart and where I have had some of the best times of my life.
However, I feel the unsavoury topic of sexual assaults at festivals needs to be addressed. Talking about sexual assault brings the same challenges, of awareness and communication, both inside and outside the boundaries of a festival - it ranges anywhere from taboo (I can only imagine how many incidents go unreported) to sensationalist, scaremongering headlines.
I'm conscious that by sticking my head above the parapet I risk offending - but in the spirit of The Secret Garden Party and what we hope it stands for, writing this is a risk worth taking.
This is a topic I feel strongly about and when sentiment is at the heart of an issue it is important to keep perspective and remain constructive. I would like to state right from the very beginning that our position at SGP on this is clear - sexual assault of any description is absolutely not tolerated and it is never the victim's fault. That is the beginning and end of it.
From our perspective, from the moment the gates open to when they close we regard managing the welfare of everyone at the event as our most important task. We do all that we can to maintain safety inside the beautiful four day gathering we have created.
We also heavily stress test every health and safety protocol for harm reduction and avoidance of injury. This is all very well if you twist your ankle playing zorb football or drink too much in the heat, but we acknowledge that it is much more difficult to prevent the actions of a few despicable individuals. The facilities we have put in place unfortunately cannot deter excessive drinking, drug taking (despite our zero tolerance policy) or even sexual assault. With all that said, what promoters ask themselves is what can we do to prevent assault happening and how much of the onus is on us to make sure this doesn't happen?
It is a fact that these types of events with a party focus do tend to encourage fun and thus drinking, and in some cases this leads to illegal substance abuse. However at a licensed event such as SGP you are far more supported in your 'leisure' time (in terms of welfare, security and medical support) than you would be in many a metropolitan 'west end' environment. Whilst this is true it cannot be expected to be seen as an entirely safe space. This allows the media to take a hysterical tone when an incident occurs that occupies a place in people's heads whilst failing to raise awareness, making our duty of care harder to exercise and our preventative measures harder to implement as a result. Take the situation we found ourselves in last year when an alleged rape on site was reported. As an organisation there was never any doubt that we felt obligated to tell our public what had happened even though we did not have to, and many businesses choose not to do so. There is huge pressure on events as to how they respond and handle situations when they arise. Not just sexual assault, but drug casualty and death also fall into his category. There have been several cases where fear of media response has led to event organisers feeling they cannot inform the public of a potential risk for fear of their business. Last summer we took the decision to put our public's safety first by appealing openly for witnesses and being very transparent about what occurred. It never crossed our mind to do otherwise. Has business suffered? Yes, categorically. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.
When the media starts suggesting that the crime figures (and specifically those regarding sexual assault) reported for UK festivals are alarming the implication is that, when we go out to a festival or outdoor event, expectations around personal safety are different to any other situation. In reality this is not the case. We still need to be acutely aware of our surroundings and act accordingly. As organisers we would love to create the perfect bubble and, without being too hippy about it, we strive to do just that. Truth is, with the amount of people we have in one place, we just can't. A community is only as good as its members- in this case our ticket holders - and we just cannot guarantee we are going to get 30,000 good people. There is no effective way of identifying and denying the sale of our tickets to the despicable individuals. There will still be a very small percentage of people at any gathering who will behave badly, whether premediated or out of downright idiocy or evil. This is true for all types of bad behaviour and it is unfortunately true for sexual assault. This type of behaviour goes against every single principle of the Garden Party we work so hard to uphold. But then so does excessively close monitoring of human beings - and there is the rub. At the risk of being flippant there is no way to avoid the ability of human nature to spread ugliness without employing a draconian nanny state approach. Even such an approach could not guarantee results and would destroy the ethos of the Garden Party. People have to be free.
I'll be honest, sometimes when I've spent time thinking about this issue I end up despondent. I wonder actually what CAN we do? There is no magic bullet. That said, we HAVE to tackle it. It might not be perfect, and we might not get it right first time, but doing nothing is not an option. So right now, here is where SGP is on the issue- with more work still to do. There is always more work to do.
1. We constantly work to improve our event policies and safety protocols. We are very proud of how the multi-agency operation at SGP works in its role of providing a safe environment for our party. This is something that takes considerable planning and training for all concerned over the winter months in many meetings and table top exercises with the relevant bodies (police, fire, ambulance, security, welfare). We actively simulate disaster scenarios and sexual assault is very much included in this. We have a clearly defined response which means in the event of such an incident we know exactly what we are doing and can get the right care for the victim and access to appropriate authorities.
2. We assess the demographic of the party and make sure we are providing the right level of service to our party goers. It is important to us that we attract people to our party with a similar ethos and values and this, in an indirect way, should encourage like-minded people to attend. It refers to that idea of self-regulation. We are a business and have to sell tickets to survive but we do not shirk our responsibility of attracting the right people to make the party what it needs to be. To address this for 2016, we installed our 10 principles, you can read them here on the websitehttp://www.secretgardenparty.com/whats-what. We want people to know what we stand for and to stop and think, is this the right event for me? Not just to come because they hear Prince Harry came or that there is naked swimming.
During the event
3. I think with any type of serious social issue the best way of being heard is to use the platforms you have to the best of your ability. I am convinced that with the type of environment we create our audience would expect a more sophisticated and considered use of our resources other than an information tent in a field. What we have is a multi-faceted event which we should use to our advantage. So in the best way we know how we are aiming to raise awareness around sexual assault aimed at both women and men by encouraging people to stop and think, and to take care of each other. To do this:
- We are dedicating some slots at our Forum, which houses all our discussion groups and debates, to the issue. Any festival goer can attend these, hear what has to be said by our guest speakers, and contribute themselves.
- We will actively address this issue head on should it arise in Gardeners' Question Time, a slot in the forum hosted by the festival directors, where anyone can ask anything they like.
- We are dedicating space in the program to safety advice specifically focused on sexual assault with support information if required.
- We will be using our pre-event messaging to help reinforce all of our welfare objectives
- We have commissioned an art piece to this effect- I can't say much more that the brief is to raise awareness of this issue. To be revealed!
Whilst our primary concern is to keep our own revellers safe we know this is an industry wide issue. As the founder of SGP, Freddie Fellowes is an active member of the AIF (Association of Independent Festivals) and has been instrumental in getting this thorny issue on the table. A collective response to an industry wide issue can carry a lot more weight. At SGP we are not shy of promoting the more controversial issues and we are prepared to make a stand on this too. But this is something that can only be tackled with collective unity from all of us and that includes not just the event organisers, attendees and artists but also the press.