Maria Miller and Britain’s creative industries need to talk

25 April 2013

Everyone seems to like talking about the ‘creative industries’ these days. For arts folk, it gives the impression that what they do is hard-edged and economically viable, it makes geeky people like programmers and software designers sound more interesting and it allows ministers to talk about rather slippery and intangible elements of the economy in the same way that they talk about manufacturing and financial services.

Ever since Labour culture secretary Chris Smith invented the ‘creative industries’ in 1998, this ingenious term has served both political and creative types well. Such has been the success of the UK’s creative industries that some more enlightened government circles began to understand that other sectors could learn from them. The high water mark came with the appointment of National Youth Theatre alumnus James Purnell as culture secretary. There was even some talk that we should be building a ‘creative economy’ to harness Britain’s talent for innovation.

On Monday I attended the launch of A Manifesto for the Creative Economy. This was published by Nesta (National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts) which has banging the drum for the creative industries for the best part of a decade. The report’s author, Hasan Bakshi, spoke well about the hard facts and statistics behind the creative industries’ success story. (There are now whole academic departments set up to study this phenomenon). It is now well established that the creative sector forms a dynamic part of the British economy and one that has been relatively recession proof. The companion piece to the manifesto was republished on the same day by Creative and Cultural Skills. After the Crunch Revisited is a collection of essays on the creative sector’s response to the recession first published in 2009.


But has anyone been listening?

I was slightly surprised to find that I was the only journalist present at the launch of the manifesto and it was a shame that no minister or senior opposition politician was present. It felt just a little bit complacent: the creative industries are very good at talking to themselves but where, I wondered, was the politics or the engagement with the wider population?

Then came “that speech”. Maria Miller has been universally castigated for her comments about the future of the arts. But, in a sense, this is just the creative industries being beaten with its own rhetoric. ‘When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s impact,’ said Miller. If she had been present at the manifesto launch the day before she would have understood that the economic value of the arts to this country was established years ago.

Maria Miller’s speech was clumsy and she, or her advisers, clearly didn’t know that the evidence she seeks is already out there a hundred times over. She came to praise the arts and ended up sounding like a philistine. That is some achievement. But the senior figures in the arts falling over themselves to criticise Maria Miller should ask themselves why, despite all the manifestos and reports and campaigns, the message is not getting across? On the government side, although there is nothing wrong with politicians asking whether public expenditure on the arts is value for money, why does Maria Miller think it’s a good idea to alienate the creative community? The people who run the major arts organisations in this country generally do a rather brilliant job. These are not “luvvies”; these are effective leaders of big institutions. Ministers running big government departments could learn a lot from these people.

Ultimately, there needs to be action if we seriously believe there is a role for the creative industries in driving future economic recovery. But for that to happen, ministers and the arts world need to start talking to each other in a language both sides can understand.

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  • John Welsh

    Software is not an intangible ‘creative’ thing. It’s a necessary, engineered product. Nothing with a microchip works without it.

  • Nick Bain

    Working in the film industry (the part of the creative industries for which the government claims the large scale successes – Harry Potter etc) my experiences have led me to wish that the government would just leave us alone. Public money would fund one commercially viable large scale project to completion per year. By industry standards, the amounts available are tiny and so bound up in PC and red tape as to be scarcely worth the effort.

    Talking about film and TV, the government sounds completely clueless. If they want to help us, they could decomplicate the tax system for freelancers and not make it so punitive to have multiple streams of income.

    There should be a viable business model for the arts. (Speaking as someone who has lost out in the funding war to projects that just burn money without any hope of profit) We can’t be reliant upon subsidy as this leads to self indulgent work that is disconnected from a changing audience.

  • terence patrick hewett

    The concept that “creative people” are only in the arts and humanities is asinine. It was us electrical engineers who actually created the BBC (we all make mistakes!) at the IEE (now the IET) headquarters at Savoy Place, Waterloo, London. For the history see link:

    Those in the sciences are not noted for their limp wristed introspection; it probably has a lot to do with the ruthlessness with which we get rid of anything which doesn’t work. Our creativity enables us to take 430 tonnes of assorted scrap metal, fill it with 500 people and propel it thorough the air at 500 mph, millions of times a year without significant loss. Have any of you “creative” types ever given birth to anything as magnificent as a Spitfire, a thing of aching beauty and of death; you see we do art, drama and history as well. You depend on us for everything you do, even the medium we are now using, the sciences created: you cannot switch on a light, turn on a tap or go to the lavatory without our leave.

    The inconvenient truth is the world is driven by creative science, engineering and technology. The development of the transistor by Bardeen/Brattain, at AT&T Bell Labs in 1947 and the mass production of microprocessors, wrought changes in society that dwarfed any of those achieved by political philosophy. The invention the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 has ensured a barely controlled dialogue between millions and has changed the world forever.

    The ignorance of science by the humanities is palpable. Having no mathematics, the worlds of classical mechanics, quantum mechanics and relativity and the questions thrown up by these, are closed books. They do not even understand how the simplest of everyday devices work.

    Fifty years ago C P Snow wrote on the fact that Science and the Humanities regarded each other with mutual incomprehension; and it has got much, much worse. A re-reading of Snow’s “The Two Cultures” shows that nothing has changed since then. “If the scientists have the future in their bones,” he claimed, “then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” F R Leavis’s poisonous response, exemplified this attitude and it triumphed; we abandoned the future to make money in the City. We abandoned space technology, of which we were second in the world after the USA, and after that abandoned just about everything else of integrity.

    So when you “creative types” decorate your next tea cosy; remember we created the scissors as well.

  • andagain

    If software, films and theatre are all creative industries, why should one of those pay taxes to subsidise the other two?

    Hollywood survives perfectly well without subsidies. And so, I gather, does the West End and Broadway. Perhaps we should concentrate on the creative industries that make money, rather than lose it.

  • Gwaillor

    Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell took “creative industries” to new heights and it was all done in 45 minutes.

  • sir_graphus

    I presume she meant that where govt subsidies are made available for innovative works that might not survive commercially, this always stimulates people to produce deliberately commercially unviable works specifically to attract the govt subsidy. She’d like this to stop. So would I.

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