Culture vultures

How can the UK government present the creative industries as a major money-spinner? Through some creative accounting.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Launching a new Creative Industries Mapping Document on 13 March 2001, UK culture secretary Chris Smith announced a near doubling in revenue generated for the UK economy, from £60billion in 1998 to £112billion in 2001.

Any minister would be pleased to announce this kind of news – but coming from the culture secretary, the figures are remarkable. For many long years the arts brief was associated with money lost, not made. Ministers from Jennie Lee to Lord Gowrie had the thankless task of asking for public cash to pay for Carl André’s pile of bricks, or some similarly unintelligible masterpiece.

Under Chris Smith, however, all that seems to have changed. The newly revamped Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is now presented as a money-spinner. The culture minister claims that the creative industries are ‘at the cutting edge’, ‘a fundamental building block of the knowledge economy’ and ‘the new economy of the twenty-first century’.

So successful has Chris Smith been in bigging-up his culture brief that he has put the much larger UK Department of Trade and Industry into the shade. While Smith hob-knobs with popstars and artists, the unfortunate Stephen Byers has been reduced to the ‘minister-for-closing-things-down’. Even DTI policy, contained in the 1998 report ‘Our Competitive Future: Building the Knowledge-Driven Economy’ written by Charles Leadbeater, reads like it is substantially plagiarised from the position papers of the DCMS.

But it is worth taking a closer look at the culture secretary’s numbers. First off, those remarkable figures do not reflect growth, but a readjustment of the figures. ‘Now I get to change the script’, says Smith, announcing the new revised mapping document. His statisticians make the additional point that ‘the two documents’ (the Creative Industries Mapping Document of 1998, and the new 2001 document) – and therefore the two figures of £60billion and £112billion – ‘are not directly comparable’.

The new mapping document suggests that 1.3million people work in the creative industries. But as a category, ‘creative’ is difficult to pin down. Who wants to be called ‘uncreative’?

However the numbers are added up, it might seem a bit unlikely that the culture secretary and not the science minister should be claiming the credit for the boom in software and computer services. Take those computer nerds out of the total, and the numbers are down by half a million people and £36.4billion.

We can understand that New Labour has made its peace with the black arts of advertising, and so is happy to celebrate the trail-blazed by the Saatchi brothers in making UK advertising a world-beater. But in that case, why isn’t public relations or marketing to be included under the ‘creative industries’ bracket – or, for that matter, government spokesmen?

Chris Smith talks up the revenue raised by the creative industries, but glosses over some of the disasters. UK television has been in deficit with the rest of the world since 1986, importing programmes from the USA to fill its yawning schedules.

UK filmmakers win just 15 percent of UK box-office takings, while the USA takes 85 percent. Film subsidies of £54million have mostly disappeared into gloomy art-house flops (1). And though UK art schools are training top fashion designers, few can afford to stay in London, where the industry simply cannot sustain them.

Smith claims that the creative industries can play a role in the regeneration of urban areas outside of London, but the latest DTI assessment of ‘business clusters’ shows that the most important, such as television, film and music, are overwhelmingly London-centric: ‘For most regions of the UK, and for most the creative industries, the position can, at best, be described as “embryonic”.’ (2) The regeneration of canal-side cafe society in Manchester and Birmingham hardly adds up to a creative industry.

If the UK’s economic future really were tied to the creative industries, a great deal more would be at stake in the round of music, television and film awards than the egos of the stars. Two countries – the Congo and Jamaica – count music as a substantial part of their balance of payments, which is perhaps not a model to follow.

More likely is that the fluff about the creative industries is useful for its propaganda value. In seeking to chart a course for the economy, a government that pioneered the ‘luvvy campaign’ feels more at home with industries that can be called ‘creative’. Marking out those sectors of the economy that meet the brief from those that are relegated to the ‘old economy’ of lumpy goods manufacture is a way of putting pressure on industry as a whole.

‘Creative industries’ become an exemplar of the kind of innovation that the government wants to encourage amongst recalcitrant industrialists. UK chancellor Gordon Brown was moved to reassure the seemingly abandoned manufacturing sector that ‘of course creativity is not confined to any one sector of the economy’ (3). You, too, can be creative!

In all the excitement over the economic case for the arts, the case for artistic excellence takes a back seat. At the risk of being unkind, the one other thing that marks out this culture secretary is his enduringly middlebrow taste in music and literature. Little matter when there is money to be made.

Director of the Tate Nicholas Serota aired an interesting rumour when he pleaded that the Department of Culture Media and Sport not be abolished (presumably absorbed into a revamped DTI). It could only become a possibility when the culture brief had become the model for a new industrial policy.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

(1) ‘Towards a Sustainable UK film Industry’, Film Council, p5
(2) Creativity Works, Anneke Elwes (ed), Profile Books 2000, pix. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)
(3) Guardian 8 March

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Topics Politics


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