Judging Debacle: Perceived Bias Must Be Justified With Reference to Facts

South Africa-based professional piper and lawyer Nicholas Taitz responds to yesterday’s letter regarding the controversial decision by the Solo Piping Judges Association to ban their members from sitting on benches where pupils may be competing, this rule covering the Argyllshire Gathering, the Northern Meeting and the London Championship. Today we also carry another letter on this issue, this time from Iain Marshall, Oban.

By Nicholas Taitz
By Nicholas Taitz

The actual issues surrounding this rule must be debated, not the authority of those stating them. I am no authority at all as a player, judge or competitor in Scotland, but my remarks are a matter of principle and can’t be answered only by questioning my personal credentials (which are, admittedly, meagre). 

The issues I voiced (others had raised them already, notably Bill Livingstone, though with slight differences) seem valid to me logically, and it’s these issues that need addressing, not the source of the views. Many of those in favour of this Rule are expert pipers, and they deserve to be listened to as well, no question – but they will need to put forward an argument, not just an assertion of expert authority. The same applies to those opposed to the Rule. 

The net effect over time of it will be that if you want to teach regularly, and with top competitors as your pupils, you cannot avail yourself to judge – and if you judge, you must likely give up your competing pupils 12 months in advance. This is the inescapable net effect of this Rule over time, and this is why it is so problematic.  

As I said before, we need the best retired pipers to teach and to judge in order to ensure the art stays at its highest levels and the medals are justifiably (I do not say ‘correctly’) awarded. There are far less damaging ways to manage perceived or real bias than a blanket ban which ultimately will create a division between teachers and judges.

In the very old days, lairds and such judged. They knew little to nothing of piping – they certainly had no bias based on pupils of theirs, because they had no ability to play and no pupils. They also had no idea of the merits of the tunes they were judging which was a bit of a problem to say the least. I don’t suggest this Rule will take us back to that, but it illustrates the problem of non-expert judges. 

At the end of the day, there are three scenarios to consider when debating the merits of this Rule, and each serious piper must ask themselves which is the better for the piping world and which they prefer:

  1. Ex-top pipers focus on teaching only and refuse to judge. In that case, pipers will get tuition from these ex-top pipers, but will be faced with judging benches which include pipers who were not top competing pipers in their day or leading piobaireachd exponents. This will lead to arguments not about bias, but about the decisions made by the judges as they will invariably lack the reputation, personally, to back up the result. Some of them may also lack the knowledge required and may contribute to the delivery not only of perceived wrong results, but actual wrong results. 
  1. Ex-top pipers might choose to judge regularly – and stop teaching. It’s obvious why that is very bad for piping over time. In addition, it will mean judging benches become increasingly removed from the piping world, handing down their results but prevented from teaching and passing on their knowledge (a sort of ivory tower effect). That is a real threat to the tradition, so carefully preserved by generations of pipers down the years.  
  1. The third option is not to have this Rule but to trust the integrity of the top judges, who also will have pupils in the mix. This option preserves all the good of having top tuition and top judges, and it must be seriously asked what good reasons exist for discarding this option, an option that has worked well for many decades.   Piping has never been as good as it is now, so it is fair to ask ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ A judge on a bench which awards a prize to his or her pupil knows this is scrutinised and will have to be doubly sure of it. In fact, most top pipers would say playing for their teacher is the hardest test, as the teacher knows their faults and is also stricter on them. Most events at the high level are judged by three judges, and given that most top pipers go to one teacher at a time and for fairly lengthy periods, it’s almost always the case that two out of the three judges are not the competitor’s recent teacher. There are already, therefore, effective checks and balances in the existing system and it needs to be asked why these are not sufficient, especially given the downsides of the new Rule. 

Each piper must consider which of the above three options is really best for piping. The simple assertion that a judge judging his own pupil must equate to perceived bias needs to be justified by reference to actual facts, it isn’t simply to be accepted at face value.