festivals 2016

What the Hell is Going on With T in the Park?

In its first decade, the Scottish event managed to establish a reputation as a well-run festival, but now it's been marred by death, crime, and sexual assault.
25 July 2016, 2:49pm

For one weekend every summer, a smart collection of fields in rural Perthshire become Scotland’s fifth largest city. The event is known as T in the Park, and it’s a festival so embedded in the country’s national psyche that it’s usually known by just one letter of the alphabet: “T”.

The festival has been a firm fixture on Scotland’s cultural calendar since the mid-90s. Embracing lukewarm pints of Tennent’s, a legendary tent that is curated by world renowned dance powerhouse Slam, and a roster of big money headliners - which this year included The Stone Roses, Calvin Harris and Red Hot Chili Peppers - it is essentially Scotland’s answer to Glastonbury. Or at the least, it's an up-in-t'north response to Michael Eavis' jamboree involving far less references to climate change, and a lot more headline appearances from indie bands that were once defined as the future of music by a mid-00s NME. More Kasabian and the Courtneers than Kanye West and the Rolling Stones, yet still a banner weekend for Scottish music fans.

Over the past few years though, T in the Park has seemingly been apropos to a once-steady car that’s suddenly taken a sharp right turn off a cliff, and ended up in a ball of flames. Where tickets would once sell out within hours of going on sale, they are now available right up to the event. Most importantly, the festival has recently faced a deluge of negative publicity following serious concerns about its organisation, hygiene and safety. Last year there were 54 arrests, and a man was found dead in the toilets. This year, there were 40 arrests in the first two days, more deaths, and a serious incident of sexual assault, leading to one politician demanding a full scale investigation into the issues behind festival. So what the hell has been going on?

While it may feel like T in the Park has been tormented with more problems than the average British festival, in its first decade it managed to establish a reputation as a well-run festival, rarely experiencing the kind of mass disorder or “Sunday night riots” that have plagued other events. But it was when T was forced to change location to the new Strathallan site in 2015 – having been at Balado since 1997 – that critical talk about the event started to reach crescendo. Concerns began quaintly last year, when it was discovered that some nesting ospreys on the site were going to be disturbed by the loud music, but the anger accelerated when the festival started in shambolic style, causing traffic chaos on surrounding roads, followed by reports of numerous arrests and a death onsite.

The real headline stealer this year proved to be the brazen (and somehow unexplainable, yet very Scottish) theft of a whole ATM machine from the site, although any hilarity about that was dampened by the other, more horrific events. Before 2016’s festival had even properly kicked off, it emerged that two 17-year-olds had died in separate incidents in the early hours of Friday. No cause has been confirmed, but police and festival organisers were quick to spread “dump your drugs” warnings as the news broke. In a graphic reminder of the failings of the UK’s drug laws, police later said that green rolex pills, likely containing dangerous MDMA substitute PMA, were being recirculated at the festival after a scare a few years ago. A 29-year-old-man then died on his return from T, with reports suggesting he could have been left on the roadside by a shuttle bus taking revellers home, and an 18-year-old woman was raped at the campsite.

In the days following the festival, a Facebook page called Tintheparktruth soon began garnering attention on Facebook, which sought to shine a light on the “truth” of the festival through crowdsourced videos and photos. In one of these clips, a teenager eats a lit cigarette and washes it down with a can of Kronenbourg. Lots of them involve festival-goers being pushed into the mud, as crowds around them jeer. Whether a series of short clips with intentional shock-value were really a true reflection of a festival attended by 70,000 people didn’t matter anymore, as they had gone viral and caused perhaps irreparable damage to the festival’s reputation. Few could deny that, at the very least, the videos and accompanying stories show a different side to T in the Park from the hours of glossy footage broadcast by the BBC over the weekend. Instead, it was as though T in the Park was a lawless no man’s land, a muddy hellscape of fighting, broken tents, and people being carried away on stretchers.

T in the Park is now operating on a very precarious annual license from Perth and Kinross Council, meaning that each year the organisers, DF Concerts, need to make the case for its continuation. Though few have gone as far as to call for the festival to be banned, politicians are raising serious questions about its future. Capacity for this year was slashed by 15,000, and a local Conservative MSP, Liz Smith, is calling for a “thorough investigation” into public safety at the site before the license is renewed for 2017. “I don't think anyone in DF Concerts, Perth and Kinross Council or Police Scotland could possibly be content with the situation as it is just now,” she told me. “We cannot have a situation where some of those who attend the event feel threatened in any way and I notice some of the long standing attendees of T in the Park are saying this too.”

But the problems facing the festival are not simply to do with its infrastructure or attendees. Alongside the images and videos of plastered teenagers, posts circulating on social media tell of overworked, undertrained and underpaid festival staff, as well as volunteers, facing torrents of abuse in difficult conditions. In one viral posting, a medical volunteer writes: “Did you know that one volunteer was threatened by someone with a knife? We were punched. Kicked. Vomited on. Bled on. Had cups of urine thrown over us. We received verbal, racial and homophobic abuse while working upwards of 12 hour shifts.”

Noisey spoke to a number of people who attended the festival, including campers and festival goers, as well as stewards tasked with ensuring their safety. Their experiences were highly mixed. Lisa Black, from Dunfermline and at the festival for the fourth time, described having a “brilliant” time, and pinned part of the hysteria on the traction that negative social media posts can quickly gain. “The first time I camped at T in the Park was in 2008 and I remember we weren't allowed back into our campsite because someone had been stabbed,” she explains. “It was probably reported back then, but social media wasn't as big so it wasn't shoved in everyone's faces.”

Katie, aged 22 and from nearby Fife, spent the first day of the festival working as a traffic steward for a site contractor. This year, T in the Park’s license was granted on the basis of a new traffic plan after long queues last year, which were successfully avoided. But Katie described its staffing as a “shambles”, with herself and a colleague left to oversee a road closure with no access to water, toilet facilities or a radio to communicate with their supervisors. “It was just so unorganised. There was no training provided, we were just put on the job with a handbook and told to get on with it,” she said. Katie was on £6.70 an hour and didn’t return after the first day.

Speaking anonymously, another steward told Noisey about their experience working at the festival gates. The deaths at T this year had brought its search regime under the spotlight, with critics arguing that the organisers need to do more to stop banned substances from getting in. “Where I was working we had fantastic interaction and banter with festival goers, while also thoroughly searching every single person and all of their bags. We could not have done anymore in terms of keeping customers safe and keeping drugs out of the arena,” said the steward, although they added that security measures appeared inconsistent across the site. “The major problem seems to be that there are so many companies employed to do security work, meaning that the whole thing is disorganised and amateurish.”

For their part, T in the Park have said they will do everything they can to ensure fan safety. A spokesperson for the festival gave the following statement to Noisey.

“For 23 years, our priority has been to bring the best musical acts from around the world to play for music fans in a fun and safe setting. We care about each and every person that passes through our gates and the entire festival team is devastated by the tragedies that took place. We aim to do everything we can to ensure fan safety by working closely in partnership with Police Scotland and the event stewarding companies to ensure a proactive approach is taken to identifying and dealing with crime. This will be at the forefront of our debrief process for this year’s event.”

Photo by William Starkey

It’s little more than a year since Scotland witnessed its last moral panic centred on allegations of out of control young people and drug-fuelled debauchery. That resulted in The Arches arts venue in Glasgow losing its license to host club nights and, in the resulting financial fallout, being forced to close down. Insiders at the club argued that they had been put in an impossible position by the authorities, with their proactive security efforts and willingness to work alongside the police ultimately used as a dossier of evidence against them. Fortunately, the authorities seem to be taking a more realistic approach with T in the Park, recognising that policing every aspect of the festival is simply not possible.

There are clearly issues that need ironed out with T. No one should go to a music festival and lose their life, especially when events like Secret Garden Party are starting to introduce drug testing sites. Nor should anyone have to run the risk of being sexually assaulted. As for the other concerns about the festival which have emerged this year, it would be easier to dismiss them if it was not for their sheer number. A reliance on poorly paid site staff working long shifts, bussed in by contractors and often with minimal training, is not unique to T in the Park, but a questionable practice nonetheless.

Despite calls from politicians and dismayed festival-goers, it seems unlikely that T in the Park will permanently disappear. The festival’s prestige, huge benefits to Scotland’s economy, and continuing popularity will all help the case for its continuation. But work needs to be done to ensure that the festival manages to regain a degree of safety and security for those who attend. Fingers crossed that next year the big questions about T in the Park aren’t about chaos on the campsite or over the festival’s future, but rather this far more pressing issue: where’s the Slam Tent, mate?

You can find Liam on Twitter

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