An investigation into Hilary Lawson, property baron, philosopher, TV producer and festival guru.
The Arts Council’s jobs board recently featured an advert seeking a ‘bright and enthusiastic Research Intern’ to work at the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). As well as a website featuring articles and videos ‘from the world’s leading thinkers,’ the IAI runs HowTheLightGetsIn, a festival in Hay-on-Wye (no relation to the famous literary festival, except for a shared date in June). Alongside recorded debates on ‘the universe, fixity and flux’ and ‘the crisis of the West,’ the IAI website features some bombastic promotional copy, according to which its aim is nothing less than ‘rescuing philosophy’ from an ‘intellectual crisis’ caused by the ‘paradoxes of postmodern culture’. The job description in the advert, describing a role programming speakers for HowTheLightGetsIn, is no less emphatic: ‘Bringing together leading thinkers and theorists across a range of disciplines, you will have the opportunity to engage in and change the public conversation about the big ideas of our time.’
HowTheLightGetsIn is typical of a relatively new kind of weekender: as well as music performances, punters can attend a programme of talks on various bookish topics. If you want to catch Yuval Noah Harari, Aaron Bastani and a DJ set by one half of Groove Armada in a single weekend, then HowTheLightGetsIn is for you. The programme is almost exhaustively capacious. There’s a slot on ‘The Life and Philosophy of Matt Hancock’ – featuring the man himself. Alternatively, you can hear the thoughts of disgraced former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne on the theme: ‘In Search of a Cleaner World.’ But amid this infinite variety, one name crops up repeatedly: Hilary Lawson. In one of several debates which he hosts or participates in, we’re invited to hear ‘post-postmodern philosopher Hilary Lawson lock horns over logic, language and truth’ with highly credentialled academics.
Lawson is the founder and editorial director of the IAI and a director of its parent company, Television and Film Productions plc (TVF). He has something of the air of an ageing rocker: craggy features, thick locks of hair, occasionally sports a leather jacket. According to the careful wording of his Wikipedia page, he ‘began’ a philosophy DPhil at Oxford, but doesn’t seem to have graduated. In fact, if we use Wikipedia as a way to try to find out more about Lawson, one of the first things we notice is that his page is remarkably well-groomed. There’s a lot on there about ‘closure,’ his pet philosophical theory, which apparently ‘shifts the focus of metaphysics away from language and towards an exploration of the tension between openness and closure’ (a review in Philosophy Now of Lawson’s book on the topic, Closure, judged it ‘a quasi-rational concept with little value and no future,’ although Lawson is cited in numerous reputable works of academic philosophy). The discussion page for Lawson’s Wikipedia article, meanwhile, is full of editors complaining that the article is ‘clearly too promotional in character,’ and that it cites too many third-party references which turn out to have been written by Lawson. In response to a request for comment for this article, a representative of the IAI protested that ‘the Wikipedia page is the outcome of many different editors over the years’ and that ‘it would be surprising if someone had not referenced books by Hilary Lawson on his Wikipedia page.’
A more mixed picture emerges from the anonymous employee reviews of the IAI on Glassdoor. The company’s average Glassdoor rating of 3.6 out of 5 isn’t bad, and most of the reviews are glowing: ‘The team is very friendly and welcoming,’ we are told, and ‘The salaries are pretty generous.’ But it’s hard to ignore the more colourful contributions: ‘I felt compelled to do my civic duty to warn you against working here unless you treat your mental health with disdain,’ one reviewer writes. ‘My experience was one of incompetent, vainglorious men and poorly paid, highly capable women running around clearing up their mistakes,’ claims another. Some of the comments complain about Lawson’s leadership, which could allegedly be capricious and overbearing.
The accuracy of the reviews is hard to verify. The IAI’s representative maintained that some of the negative Glassdoor reviews were written by an axe-grinding former employee. On the other hand, some sources alleged that they had felt pressured to write Glassdoor reviews almost as soon as they began work. To that allegation, the IAI’s representative responded that ‘to the company’s knowledge no member of staff has been asked to write a positive review,’ and that a company email reminding employees to write one ‘clearly states that employees should ensure their review is a genuine reflection of their own views.’
Curious about the wide range of opinions on the IAI, I started getting in touch with former employees. As it turns out, there exists a sort of shadow guild of post-IAI people, mostly in their late twenties or thirties: think-tankers, journalists, writers and PhD students, now dispersed but bonded by their collective experience (a recurring theme of their testimonies is a sense of camaraderie between veterans). In the end, I heard from more than 20 former employees who worked at the IAI or its sister organisations between 2012 and 2019. I wanted to find out how a slick outfit, co-signed by national newspapers and a line-up of luminaries, apparently with plenty of perfectly happy employees, could end up being the subject of a whisper network of former staff claiming to be faintly (or sometimes seriously) traumatised. Some say they have been waiting a long time for their alleged experiences to be made public; one said they remained a member of a group chat of former employees that they joked was a ‘support group’ and that they had been waiting ‘for years’ for someone to report on their allegations about the company.
The IAI was recently afforded the necessary permission from Companies House to use the word ‘Institute’ in its name (they applied only after I asked them about it). According to official guidance, that title is reserved for organisations with special public ‘pre-eminence’ and ‘status’; all the more important, then, that they should be transparent and accountable. So, to illuminate the clamorous online debate about the IAI, who better to ask than the people who worked there?
The life cycle of an IAI hire begins with an internship interview at the company’s Islington office. Candidates are mostly young, mostly from elite universities and all desperate to work in the arts. ‘I was living outside of London and was commuting in for interviews, as I was keen to get an arts or humanities-related job,’ one candidate, Sonia*, told me. Interviews open with curve balls: ‘What is reality?’; ‘What would you say if I asked you if numbers existed?’.
Some candidates had to pretend to call famous philosophers and convince them to speak at the festival. Verisimilitude was key: ‘I had to pretend to hold a phone over my ear.’ Some candidates had this game sprung upon them by surprise, when the interviewer interrupted them with a ring-ring! mid-sentence. So far, so much harmless eccentricity. But although the IAI no longer runs unpaid internships, in previous years successful candidates were reportedly asked to work for little or no pay. Those brave enough to ask for money were allegedly offered salaries of about £13,000 or £16,000 for entry-level roles. One worker was paid just £250 cash for ten days of long hours over the festival period, along with accommodation and a discount on food. The IAI itself is unlikely to be a cash cow, but the public accounts of TVF record a pre-tax profit of £1.3 million for the most recent financial year. TVF’s highest-paid director (there are two, of whom Lawson is one) took home £347,489.
Low pay might be tolerable for a dream gig – as one former employee put it, ‘It’s one thing to be paid minimum wage to do a job that is fun’ – but some employees felt that the glossy job ads didn’t match the reality. ‘Employees were hugely misled about roles through the job ad and interview process,’ according to Amia, who also worked on HowTheLightGetsIn. ‘They get Oxbridge and Russell Group grads on board by selling jobs as really creative roles,’ Amia claimed. She felt that many roles were closer to that of ‘an admin assistant’. One source, recruited to a digital marketing role, alleged that, ‘We didn’t have any creative control over online content or copy, besides which stock image to tweet, and we were constantly told to cold-call people.’ Another was hired as a ‘digital content assistant’ with a copywriting brief; but he told us that ‘most of my day actually involved data entry for ticket sales’.
According to reports, data entry seems to have been an activity of essential importance. Allegedly on Lawson’s personal insistence, ‘all – ALL – work was to be done through an old version of Excel,’ Amia told me, ‘including reports, copywriting, personal note-taking and drafts; things that no sane person would do in Excel.’ The IAI commented that ‘company staff use a variety of computer programmes, including Microsoft Excel. The version of Excel on company computers is part of Microsoft Office 2016, in line with a large proportion of companies in the UK today’. Still, the spreadsheets supposedly helped to enforce what was allegedly an ‘insane, insane culture of micro-management’.
Lawson’s idiosyncratic management philosophy is laid out in a series of training slides, passed to The Fence and reportedly designed by Lawson himself, with one presentation containing no fewer than 1,000 words of bullet points (that’s 17 slides) on the topic of ‘Developing KPIs for your team’. New employees were also given a 50-page document containing 11,000 words of ‘Company Norms’ for TVF. According to that document, an error in filling out what one employee described as the ‘ludicrously complex’ KPIs could result in docking of ‘KPI-related pay’. Further mistakes could lead to disciplinary action. It contains detailed edicts on everything from how to name computer files (‘File naming is part of our key performance indicators and is recorded monthly as part of each division’s KPIs’) to the arrangement of desks (‘A chaotic desk can cause chaotic thinking…a computer, a telephone, a filing tray and storage should be all that is on your desk at the end of each day’).
Individual phone calls reportedly had to be data-entried, with weekly targets for the number of cold calls to prospective festival speakers. A corresponding marks system allegedly yielded a score to be discussed at all-staff meetings. According to several sources, one of Lawson’s preferred meeting formats was to compel junior staff to work on their spreadsheets in front of everyone, with their screen projected on to the wall of the office: ‘… perhaps half an hour of him shouting that this cell needed to be highlighted in bold, and that one in a different point font size.’ In response, the IAI’s representative commented that they ‘routinely share documents and discuss them openly. Everyone has a voice and everybody is listened to.’
The company norms stipulated that ‘meetings should not wait for latecomers’. But according to several staffers, meetings called by Lawson would often begin late, sometimes overran by hours, and in one employee’s view ‘had the quality of a dramatic performance to demonstrate that his staff were hapless or perhaps insidious idiots.’ Shouting and table-thumping were reportedly not uncommon. Other allegations were more bizarre: at Lawson’s bidding, at every meeting where he was present there would be a large platter of nuts and strawberries on the table. The ‘unspoken rule,’ however, was apparently ‘that these were only for Hilary – over the course of a one-to-three-hour meeting he would methodically work his way through an inconceivable quantity of nuts and fruit while everyone watched.’ The IAI’s representative objected, saying that ‘teams are encouraged to eat’ the food on the table and that ‘the offices include a café/breakout space which is fully stocked with food and drink for all members of staff to consume freely.’
Between mouthfuls of snacks, Lawson was reportedly known to wander down strange philosophical cul-de-sacs, on one occasion leaning back in his chair after a pause to ask: ‘Are birds in the world? Or are they just lost?’ (The company norms, meanwhile, encouraged staff to ‘generate effective meetings that are as focused and short as possible.’ According to several sources, work would accelerate when Lawson was away from the office and then ‘grind to a halt or regress’ when he returned, when employees would reportedly be presented with a fresh set of tasks. The IAI’s representative maintained that reports of lateness and shouting were ‘false and would be entirely contrary to the manner in which meetings are run’ and that ‘at no point’ had Hilary thumped his fists on the table.
It seems few interns felt brave enough to complain. ‘They hire people who have interesting ideas but who are really young and don’t have any idea about their working rights,’ one of them, Sam, alleged. Some say they were concerned about raising issues with managers who they regarded as allies of Lawson. Because they felt unable to seek recourse through proper channels, some employees believe that their mental health suffered. More than one employee told me they had required therapy to process their time at the IAI; one reported being ‘put on anti-depressants for the first time in my life’ and said that ‘poor working conditions were a huge factor in this’. Another said that ‘the sheer chaos and contradictory mess of instructions’ from senior colleagues led to ‘noticeably heightened personal stress levels’ throughout his period of employment. The IAI dispute these claims, saying that they are ‘not aware of any instance when the mental health of individuals within the IAI team or the wider TVF group has suffered as a result of their employment’ and that although a small number of individuals had suffered periods of mental ill health, ‘in no cases has the HR department been notified that these have been the result of the company’s actions or working conditions.’
The IAI’s talks and events feature speakers of all political stripes. But scrolling through debate blurbs about ‘free speech’, ‘group-think’ and whether ‘woke politics threaten freedom’, it is possible to discern a conviction that no talking point should be off-limits, including – or, perhaps, especially – those which supposedly ‘challenge the status quo’. One source alleged that ‘[festival] programming generally – and therefore conversation in the office – was geared towards courting controversy.’ At the height of the Syrian civil war, Lawson reportedly spent an afternoon exhorting staff to contact representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic in order to invite Bashar al-Assad to speak at HowTheLightGetsIn, apparently hoping that the Syrian president would travel to Hay-on-Wye to ‘tell his side of the story’. Anjem Choudary, the convicted Isis sympathiser, was invited to take part in a debate entitled ‘When Women Rule the World’ that aimed to ponder ‘What would a world where women were dominant be like, and what will happen to masculinity in a modern, matriarchal society?’ The invitation was apparently rescinded but only after intelligence was received that the festival was going to be targeted by violent fascists. The IAI’s representative claimed that it ‘does not believe it has ever sought to invite Assad to events but would have no objection to doing so’ because it ‘believes in open discussion even between those who hold views with which we might fundamentally disagree.’
Lawson’s apparent inclination to question progressive orthodoxies would seem to be nothing new. One of the less venerable productions of TVF was Greenhouse Conspiracy, a 1990 Channel 4 documentary directed and presented by Lawson. The documentary argued that ‘there is no evidence at all’ for man-made climate change, which was supposedly a mere conspiracy cooked up by scientists greedy for funding. The Guardian said that the documentary ‘presented as hard fact statements that were extremely contentious and often plain wrong’. In 2009, an editor who had exclusively made edits to the pages for TVF, Hilary Lawson and ‘Closure’ expunged references to Greenhouse Conspiracy from TVF’s Wikipedia page, claiming that it and others were ‘not productions’ of TVF (again, the IAI’s representative maintains that the changes were not made by anyone there). In fact, Greenhouse Conspiracy was a TVF production. Indeed, according to one IAI employee, Lawson still proudly displays in his office a prize that the film received: the Shell Cawston award, co-sponsored by the fossil fuel company.
The IAI trades on its capacity to attract big names from the worlds of academia, journalism and public affairs. Speakers have their expenses paid but are expected to ‘generously donate their time out of a passion for spreading big ideas,’ according to its website. The IAI website also commissions writers without offering a fee. The freelance film critic Caspar Salmon was asked to write, for free, a 1,500-word article about casting the next James Bond (the IAI’s email to him courteously asked whether lack of payment would be a ‘deal breaker’; it was).
Speakers and writers might be more inclined to ‘donate’ their time and labour to the IAI because of its apparent charitable purpose. ‘Funded by our charitable trust,’ a page on its website reads, ‘our debates, talks, courses and workshops challenge audiences to consider new ideas.’ TVF’s public accounts for 2020 also refer to the ‘charitable activity’ of the IAI. But the line between public good and private profit has, at times, been hard to make out. A donations page on the IAI’s website stated that it was supported by the Art and Ideas Trust, a ‘charitable trust which relies on your generous support.’
The Art and Ideas Trust is indeed a registered charity. But the link provided (as pointed out by the eagle-eyed historian Guy Walters) appeared to solicit donations to the IAI itself, which is operated by a private company trading under the name Art and Ideas Ltd, a subsidiary of TVF. The IAI’s representative commented that ‘donations are only received by the Art and Ideas Trust’ and that this discrepancy was as a result of a ‘dead link’, which has now been fixed.
Another subsidiary of TVF is Quarter Ltd., formerly known as Clifton Hotels, a chain of hotels and venues in Bristol. In 2009, references to Clifton Hotels were expunged from TVF’s Wikipedia page by the same editor who had removed mentions of Greenhouse Conspiracy on the basis that Clifton ‘is a separate enterprise’. TVF’s own accounts state that their activities ‘span accommodation, dining, and creative workplace sectors’. Is it possible that this anonymous editor wished to obscure the IAI’s affiliation with a profit-making property firm? The IAI claimed that ‘to the best of our knowledge, IAI has not made these changes’ and that, in any case, ‘reference to Clifton Hotels on a website about Television and Film Productions would look irrelevant.’
The IAI has effectively managed its public image, based on impressive line-ups of writers and speakers, glossy branding and assertions of philanthropic intent. The alleged experiences of former employees have so far not been part of the picture, save for a handful of anonymous online reviews. Now prospective speakers, contributors and members of the public can make up their own minds about the IAI. For its part, the IAI’s representative issued a statement maintaining that the ‘IAI has a proud history of excellent feedback from employees. The overwhelming views of ex-employees reported online and to the company are positive. IAI and Mr Lawson have never known or been notified that the mental health of any staff member has suffered from working practises at IAI and would of course have taken any such issues extremely seriously and taken steps to rectify them. [The] IAI and its associated bodies are sensitive and responsible employers who pride themselves on their nurturing of graduates and the promotion of talented individuals, especially women.’