THE head of T in the Park has broken his silence over the row about £150,000 of Scottish Government funding for the iconic music festival.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Herald, Geoff Ellis, chief executive of DF Concerts, dismissed the attacks as politically motivated, accused critics of “cultural snobbery” and revealed that the company previously accepted public money from the former Labour-LibDem governing coalition for the festival in 2007.

The current SNP Government has been sharply criticised for signing off on £150,000 of support for the music festival’s promoters DF Concerts after former special advisor Jennifer Dempsie set up meetings between Geoff Ellis and Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop.

In his first interview since the row erupted, Ellis defended Dempsie and denied hiring the former aide to Alex Salmond as a lobbyist “to see if she could get any money from her pals”.

However, he admitted he was keen to secure funding from the Scottish Government and said Dempsie introduced him to several high-profile SNP politicians, including her partner, Westminster leader Angus Robertson and Environment Minister Richard Lochhead, at the party’s conference in Glasgow in March.

Speaking of Hyslop, who was quizzed by Holyrood's Education and Culture Committee and accused of “cronyism” by opposition MSPs, Ellis said: “When you want to meet with a politician people have aides and that’s who you go through and Jennifer knows who the people are in all the parties.

“We didn’t employ her to set up meetings but it is part of what she would do. She’s a proactive person. She’d be on the phone saying Geoff would like to update you on the progress of T in the Park. She knows the ropes. When you employ somebody you employ them for all of their strengths, a contact book being one of those.

“Did I get priority access to Fiona Hyslop? I don’t think so. Fiona knows who I am. If my PA was to phone up she might have had to make two phone calls before getting to the right person to make the phone call to.

“The fact that she (Dempsie) set up the meeting, so what? ... Obviously if she hadn’t set up the meeting people couldn’t have made the accusation of cronyism – I get that – but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. But was the meeting only had because Jennifer set it up? No. That’s completely ridiculous and an insult to the intelligence of Fiona Hyslop.”

Ellis said his relationship with Dempsie began when she worked for a PR firm used by DF Concerts.

He hired her on a temporary contract during the planning process and insisted she was “more a strategist than a lobbyist”.

Describing the fraught period before Perth and Kinross Council rubber stamped T in the Park’s move from Balado to Strathallan, Ellis said: “When we knew we had to move T in the Park we were thinking about what help we could get because it was costing us a fortune. So we looked into that. We couldn’t get support from Scottish Enterprise because we didn’t have planning permission. We were right up against it.”

Dempsie suggested Ellis meet politicians from all parties and took him to the SNP’s ‘Campaign Conference’ at the SECC in March. Ellis described himself as a “Labour supporter until I got completely despondent with them at the last election”.

Ellis said: “I live in Glasgow. There are a hell of a lot of SNP politicians now. It was a good opportunity to briefly meet several of them. She (Dempsie) knows who they all are. I said hello to Angus Robertson (SNP Westminster leader and Dempsie’s partner). I didn’t meet Nicola (Sturgeon) but I’ve met Nicola on several occasions. The Environment Minister (Richard Lochhead) I saw briefly there, as well as Fiona.

“I just saw it as a good way of kind of saying to people I’d like to bring you up to speed on T in the Park. I was there wearing a T in the Park hat and basically anybody that would listen – you know, we were going through a hell of a time - I wanted to make sure we had support for T in the Park.”

The festival had been based at Balado, near Kinross, since 1997, but had to be moved after health and safety fears were raised over an oil pipeline running under the site. As part of the relocation, T in the Park had to ensure there was no risk to wildlife or heritage sites.

A briefing note about relocation costs sent from DF Concerts to the culture secretary’s office was released under Freedom of Information legislation but figures were redacted.

Ellis said DF Concerts spent “close to £3 million” to move the festival “plus all the money we’ve left behind in the ground in terms of facilities”.

He refused to discuss the details of the “commercially sensitive” information but revealed that a one-off payout to connect the water supply set the company back £650,000.

Ellis said: “Now, this Scottish Government funding of £150,000 didn’t go towards that because it can’t go towards infrastructure spend but it can be spent on land rental and consultancy costs, with regards to the move. I think it’s fair to say we had as many archaeologists and ornithologists working at T in the Park as we had artists. It cost us an absolute fortune.”

Ellis said he had no qualms about asking government ministers for cash because a precedent was set in 2007.

“We’ve had government funding in the past from the Labour administration to help set up ‘Healthy T’ (a catering area which offers alternatives to fast food),” he explained. “People questioned that funding at the time. I think it was about £20,000. But it helped provide a platform for the government, through Health Scotland, to talk to an audience and get messages across that will help them in later life and help influence general habits around eating.”

Ellis also defended T in the Park’s cultural significance and accused critics of the decision to hand over a government grant of elitism.

He said: “There’s always been a degree of cultural snobbery. It’s that thing if something is ‘worthy’ or ‘high art’ or ‘traditional’ it is perhaps, by definition, not popular and perhaps needs underwritten by the public purse. That’s an argument that I’m not saying is right or wrong. But the other side of the coin is why shouldn’t public money go towards supporting contemporary music? There’s a thought that it’s just pop music and there’s no cultural relevance. Well that’s bullshit.”

Ellis came under fire again last week when it emerged DF Concerts recorded a pre-tax profit of £6.2 million last year.

He said: “Our 2014 profits have nothing to do with the viability of T in the Park in 2015. We weren’t moving T in the Park in 2014. You’ve got to be careful what you say because you don’t want people to suddenly lose all confidence in us as a company but there’s definitely going to be a dip (in profits). 2014 was a record year for the company but 2015 will not be.”

He also laughed off suggestions that sponsors Tennent’s could have paid relocation costs.

“Tennent’s have a commercial contract with us to sponsor the event and it’s not directly proportional to our costs,” Ellis said. “It’s a long term sponsorship arrangement. I can’t go to Tennent’s and ask them for the money.”

Ellis insisted T in the Park has a long term future at Strathallan and moved to quell any fears that the festival could be scaled back after Fiona Hyslop told MSPs “there was a risk to the viability of a multiday, multistage festival being held in rural Perthshire” before suggesting organisers could “move the festival itself away from Scotland”.

Ellis said: “I told the minister what was open to us. We could have had a single stage event on multiple nights which we would have had to risk far less money on but the returns would have been broadly similar. But we don’t want to do that.”

He denied that constituted a threat to remove an annual economic boost to the Scottish economy estimated to be worth £15.4 million.

“I’ve never threatened a government minister and I wouldn’t make those threats,” Ellis said. “I think it would be crass. That wouldn’t happen.”

Despite the furore surrounding the state aid he gave an emphatic answer when asked whether he had considered handing it back.

“No, I haven’t,” he said. “It has been really challenging, really difficult and it does feel like people have really put the boot in to what is a national treasure.

“Now I get that there’s a bit of politics involved. I understand the politics. If it had been 15 quid, £150,000 or one and a half million it would have been the same answer.”

A Scottish Government spokesman confirmed that funding for T in the Park's Healthy T initiative was “agreed in March 2007”.

“The then Scottish Executive was one of the sponsors of the Healthy T healthy eating zones at T in the Park in 2007,” he added. “As part of the then Scottish Executive’s Healthy Living Campaign, funding of £20,000 was provided to support the promotion of healthy food at the festival.”

A spokesman for Scottish Labour said: “There is a world of difference between funding a healthy eating initiative, which was press released at the time, and providing £150,000, after meetings arranged by a former SNP adviser, to a firm that had just made record profits. This is desperate stuff.”