It remains to be seen how the draconian ban on judges joining a bench when their pupils are playing, imposed last week by the Solo Piping Judges Association, will work in practice. It is up to the promoters affected – Oban, Inverness and London – to run with this dictat if they are so inclined. They would be wise to pause and draw breath.
It is already very difficult for them to ensure top quality benches without some crossover involving pupils. After all, it is stating the obvious that the most knowledgeable will be in most demand to teach and to judge. In our artistic village the odd conflict of interest is bound to happen. Agree to this latest injudicious ruling and promoters become shackled to one huge hostage to fortune. Moreover they should be aware that there is a considerable cadre of opposition to the latest ex cathedra from the SPJA committee. Remember, only 17 out of the association’s constituency of 52 were present when this ‘unanimous’ decision was taken.
Hypothetical yes, but when Hamish travels from the Highlands on his £400 round trip to London and discovers that a tutor is presiding, will the Competing Pipers Association insist that he doesn’t play, or will the SPJA judge be asked to pack away his pencil and spend the day admiring Big Ben? Assuming matters proceed as advertised in the programme, questions must follow, for there is no use having a law unless it is enforced, is there? Why was judge A on that bench when piper B was playing? Now judge A may not have known that piper B was going to enter, and piper B may not have known that judge A was on the bench. No matter, the investigation must proceed along with all the attendant brouhaha, the integrity of the individuals concerned called into question. Legal action may follow with a financial and adverse publicity risk and a consequent threat to sponsorship. Do promoters really want to be embroiled in all this?
The whole atmosphere surrounding this situation smacks of the black days of the Association of Piping Adjudicators (APA) back in the early ‘90s, days which led to a boycott of the main contests by pipers and years of ill feeling in the aftermath. Yet the situation we find ourselves in today is all so unnecessary. The ‘declare an interest’ safeguard is already in place, the three-man bench an additional bulwark against individual partiality. Moreover judges have always had the option of accepting an invite to judge or not. What was wrong with leaving it to their own conscience?
So it will be interesting to see if the SPJA closed shop gains any traction. My advice to the piping committees and stewards of the Argyllshire Gathering, the Northern Meeting and the Scottish Piping Society of London would be to keep your own counsel; acknowledge concern over conflicts of interest and pledge to do what can be done to lessen areas of potential dispute. But sign up to this ill-conceived covenant? Promoters must retain the right to select who they see fit to judge their competitions. They are the ones who raise the money and give of their free time to put them on after all. Issue the invite; judge declines for whatever reason; fine, ask someone else. Judge accepts, then trust his/her integrity to fulfil the required duties in a professional manner.
When over in Pittsburgh last weekend I had a long chat with Canadian Bill Livingstone about the situation. Bill is one of our most respected senior adjudicators but has now resigned himself to no longer being asked to travel to Scotland to help with the judging at the major events. His crime? He gives a few lessons to pipers playing for Silver and Gold Medals and senior piobaireachd events. Here is a man rightly concerned with passing on his knowledge, yet now, in his 75th year, his top-level judging career is more or less over. Isn’t this an indictment on the very association that is meant to represent his interests?