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Hunt's Glass Slipper is Filling with Toxic Toes

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Given the phone-hacking and "blagging" scandal engulfing his department, embattled Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt might understandably be granted brief artistic respite; perhaps in the form of an elegant white swan gliding majestically across the screen - in an open air operatic performance of Massenet's Cinderella, presented by that most refined of bodies, the Royal Opera House.

Yet the oily bird that slid and shuffled into view during the BP sponsored event in Trafalgar Square tonight should set serious alarm bells ringing for Hunt; the tarred interloper wrestled away by burly security, to audience gasps and dropped flutes of prosecco, was in fact a protagonist in a "guerilla ballet", part of a protest action organised by climate change campaigners furious at the ongoing corporate sponsorship of the capitals "summer screenings" by the oil monolith.

This type of sponsorship - promoted unchecked by Hunt on the launch edition of this website - is seen as a convenient means of filling the crater left by government cuts to the arts. Opera, or the arts in general are not front line nursing, social care, or specialist teaching, so if BP picks up the tab for its continuation, does it matter? In short, yes, it matters critically.

BP is riven with strife, variously generated by the catastrophic oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico last year; the ruling by the UK government itself in March of this year that the consortium it leads is breaking international regulations governing human rights and torture in militarised operations on the highly controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline2 and most urgently, its extraordinary and deeply disconcerting commitment to Canadian tar sands - the dirtiest oil currently produced - around three times the emissions per barrel of oil than from normal crude - accelerating the dangers of climate change to terrifying, possibly irreversible levels.

And what is become patently clear as Hunt personally drives this agenda, is that bodies like the Royal Opera House and others are lapping it up, with some fundraising teams known to actively seek relations with "contaminated" brands in dire need of a cultural cleansing.

Last year the Royal Opera House's non box office income leapt again; 2.1 million from corporate sponsorship that presents the identity of the donor in a soft, appealing, highly respectable form.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial; BP receive invaluable public reach from seriously cheap PR; it estimates 1.9 million people attend BP supported cultural events every year and around 50,000 children visit its sponsored displays at Tate Britain, no doubt leaving with a fragrant impression of the Disney-like provider.

Naturally the fundraising arms of bodies like the Tate are ROH are registered charities, so the BP's of the world in turn qualify for corporate tax relief on such "donations". If Hunt and our biggest arts institutions have their way, this cheap, sophisticated advertising and surreptitious re-branding will by extension expand dramatically. But despite Hunt's fairy-tales, is this carriage about to turn into a pumpkin?

In addition to lasts nights drama, naked figures were recently covered in oil in Tate Britain as tourists watched aghast, musicians including Lady Gaga, Korn, and Creed have publicly boycotted BP on national tours, 166 artists have written to the Tate calling for it to end its relationship with BP, and next Monday (18th) a public exorcism of BP is due to take place at Tate Britain.

So as wider awareness of corporate behaviour builds, the loss to the arts institutions is credibility and, it has even been reported the policing of its artistic engagement and output to reflect "brand friendly" activities.

But for both government and the public the stakes are higher. If government is hell bent on importing the north-American model of corporate sponsorship of the arts and our civic spaces, it must be prepared for the debate to widen significantly (to a level I suspect it will be deeply uncomfortable with) around the eligibility of those corporations who can fund such bodies, taking into account - amongst other factors - the social and environmental impact of their commercial activities at home and abroad.

If tobacco companies are forbidden from sponsoring such events and institutions on health grounds, can companies such as BP be acceptable when climate change has been described as "a greater threat than global terrorism", that is already killing over 100,000 people a year?

It would appear utterly ludicrous to all for this coalition to announce genuinely world leading/legally binding emissions targets for 2025, and then simultaneously invite the very worst of climate change offenders to deliberately distract the public from the horrendous peril their activities are creating.

Oh, and as a swan-song, this is the bit where one asks - in an age of austerity - how the arts will be paid for if BP won't? Last night's Trafalgar Square performance was free after all? Those I'm afraid who it really did appear can afford opera tickets should pay for them; the cost of greasing BP's continued abuse of global resources is far, far more expensive. To us all.