Do anonymous reviews pose a threat to journalistic integrity?

Gabriel Humphreys 24 August 2018
Image Credits: Tyler Callahan

In January 2018, Varsity announced a new theatre reviewing system. To help promote authenticity, all reviews would be published anonymously – reviewers names would still be listed on the Varsity website, but no individual article would have a name attached. The system was also advertised with one distinct advantage, which was that people involved in theatre more directly could review shows without feeling self-conscious about knowing the people involved, hardly unreasonable in a small and well-connected theatre environment.

Initially, I was totally sold. I’d always found Cambridge reviews to be rather flat and uninspiring, the highs were high but the lows were middling – the infamous three stars was all too familiar to shows that didn’t agree with reviewers. And, in its defence, the system yielded results, at least to begin with. It allowed student reviews to be far more analytical and critical, and assured that the reviewer wasn’t sacrificing friendships or compromising their position in a competitive and insular theatre community. Alongside the introduction of anonymous reviews, Varsity also encouraged people already involved with theatre to apply as writers, something I have no doubt contributed to the standard of reviews.

However as time went on, the cracks started to show. Lack of accountability presents the first major issue. Despite producing a more incisive style, it sometimes feels like the afforded anonymity can be used as a mask in order to present some extremely harsh judgements. While I can’t account for personal taste and opinion, and can’t prove that these views are unfounded, writers are utterly unable to be held accountable for their words. Transparency is surely the key to opinion-based journalism, and this new system deprives the reviews of precisely that cornerstone.

I’ve also found that anonymity unbalances the relationship of artist and critic. Whenever you are involved in creating a piece of theatre, whether onstage or off, you place a little part of yourself in the spotlight to be critiqued and examined; why shouldn’t it be an equal playing field for reviewers? They should be able to take criticism and be forced to defend their beliefs, just as much as those creating the piece of theatre. If you have a complaint about a specific review – who can you contact directly? Only an editor, and it’s likely to be an awkward middleman conversation, unless they disclose the identity of the reviewer.

Anonymous reviewing also removes any knowledge of reputation from articles. Certain people are known to write and interpret shows in a particular way; everyone has a personal standpoint and often their own subconscious bias or preconceptions to go with it and, without knowledge of that, reviews can be misinterpreted. Even with reviews written under an alias, a sense of personality can be gleaned, which brings the reader closer to an individual reviewer, enriching opinions and engaging those reading much more intently.

It is also no surprise that, in a community of people so relatively small, the anonymity of the reviewing system could never be preserved. In several instances, when an especially scathing review came out, the identity of the reviewer has very quickly become common knowledge. Whether from the horse’s mouth or otherwise, it seems to defeat the object of anonymous reviewing. Nonetheless it has drawn out some interesting personal biases – I remember one very specific occasion when a somewhat disheartening review was published, and it soon became apparent that the reviewer had in fact auditioned for the show and not been offered a part. Whether or not this influenced their review is of course total supposition; but at least when a name was attached we knew when someone’s best friend had given their performance a glowing five stars, or vice versa.

I have no doubt that this anonymous system, which Varsity has continued to implement since Lent 2018, has had a positive effect on reviewing. But it is far from perfect, and I find it a shame that people don’t feel able to air their honest opinions on the work of others. Theatre is art, and honest critique of art isn’t (or rather shouldn’t be) personal. In the interests of journalistic integrity, I offered this article to Varsity as well, but was informed they were “not looking to publish a piece examining our reviewing system”, and when I asked if I could review for them at the Fringe, non-anonymously, they informed me that they were only looking for anonymous reviews. I don’t really have a solution, but I know that I’m not by any means the only person to find the system problematic. I can’t help thinking that maybe we really were better off putting a face to a middle ground review, rather than reading anonymous pot-shots from the dark.