The Royal Albert Hall has protested strongly to the Charity Commission about a newspaper article based on an interview with its chair, William Shawcross, which says the hall "has been given until May to put its house in order or face a formal inquiry by the commission".
The statement in The Sunday Telegraph is not attributed directly to Shawcross, but in a four-page letter to the commission the hall asks it and him to disassociate themselves from this and other statements in the article "which are otherwise attributable to him by implication".
The hall, a charity, is engaged in a long-standing dispute with the commission over its governance, in which all the voting members of the ruling council – the trustees – are elected from among people who own a third of the hall’s seats and can sell them privately for inflated prices.
The commission has told the hall there is a risk that the council would prefer its own interests and those of other seat-holders over those of the charity. It is pressing for a change in the constitution to give non-seat-holders a voting majority on the council, but the hall is resisting this.
The letter from Ian McCulloch, a vice-president of the hall, to Kenneth Dibble, the commission’s legal director, expresses dismay and concern about the article and claims that Shawcross, by undermining the hall’s reputation, is infringing the commission’s statutory objective to increase public trust and confidence in charities.
The letter, seen by Third Sector, says it is untrue that the hall has been warned by the commission that it faces a formal inquiry if it does not "put its house in order". The commission would need evidence of wrongdoing to open an inquiry, it says, but no suggestion of wrongdoing has ever been put to the hall by the commission.
The other unattributed statements the hall objects to in the article are that the hall "allows" seatholders to make large profits from selling tickets for their seats and some seat-holders were selling their tickets for the Last Night of the Proms for up to £3,000 each.
The hall objects to the first statement on the grounds that it has no control over what seat-holders (also known as members) do with their private property. On the second, it asks for evidence that this was the case.
The letter also takes issue with a direct quotation from Shawcross in the article that "the scale of commercialisation in the private sale of seats raises questions about whether the charity is in fact operating for the public benefit, as required by charity law. The trustees should consider whether such arrangements risk damaging public confidence in their charity."
The letter points out that the commission has confirmed that the hall is a charity operating within its current constitution, and says it therefore must be operating for the public benefit. It is obvious from the hall’s events and its education and outreach programme, it adds, that the hall operates for the public benefit and is widely admired.
A spokesman for the commission confirmed receipt of the letter and said it would reply in due course. "The Royal Albert Hall is currently undertaking a governance review," he said.
"The commission has made it clear that the issue of conflicts of interest and the independence of the council from the seat-holders should be dealt with as part of this review. The commission will not pre-judge the outcome of this review and will assess its regulatory options once this has been presented."
A spokeswoman for the hall declined to comment.