Speaking at a visit to The Foundry, John Whittingdale MP (above) also supported the government's EBacc plans for GCSEs despite evidence that its causing fewer pupils to study fewer creative subjects.
This week, the government released the Create Together report, charting what it sees the future of the creative industries will be over the next five years. It sums up our successes – valuing it at £84.1bn and noting it employs 1 in 11 people in the UK –sets out the challenges facing the industry and lists (unfortunately rather vague) recommendations across areas such as growth, diversity and education.
One challenge not discussed by the report is that brought about by Britain leaving the EU, as it was written before the referedum. There's only a single, obviously-hastily-added mention of the referedum in the report – which you could take as either that no-one writing it really though we would vote to leave or that leaving won't have much effect on the creative industries. And from the positions taken by most of the industry in the run up to the referendum, we can assume it's the former.
The government's culture secretary John Whittingdale, who commissioned the report, thinks its the latter. Speaking to me and other journalists while touring London-based VFX software developer The Foundry as part of a creative industry tour to publicise the report, he claimed that the report wouldn't have been substantially different if it was written today rather than before the vote.
As a Vote Leave supporter, Whittingdale was keen to talk up how 'Brexit' could be a positive thing for the creatives industries.
"There are concerns [from the creative industries],” he said, "which I'm talking to the [those] industries about – and which we will seek to address when we come to have discussions with Europe about the new arrangements – but there are also huge opportunities."
"[Places like] Silicon Valley and LA and Shanghai are, in my view, where the greatest opportunities lie. We are now able – as a result of becoming an independent, self-governing country again – to be able to strike new trade arrangements right across the globe. We'll always trade with Europe, but I think there are greater opportunities as a result of leaving."
Whether we can strike deals that are as much in our favour on our own – rather than with the economic muscle of 27 countries – has been a topic of debate both before and after the referendum, with the balance of opinion from most senior economists appearing to be that we’ll be at a major disadvantage. Whittingdale is adamant that being able to negotiate with countries like China on our own will make us better off.
"We know longer have to get an agreement with twenty-seven other countries in order to strike a trade arrangement,” he said. "I was in China six weeks ago. They are wanting to invest hugely in the creative industries. The President [of China, Xi Jinping] has told them that this is one of the greatest growth areas, and they know this country is probably the leading country in the world, and so the opportunities for British business there are enormous."
Another UK advantage that Whittingdale claims that won’t be affected by Brexit are the tax breaks and pool of talent that we have here. It’s fitting and perhaps ironic that Whittingdale was speaking at The Foundry. The British-based VFX firms that use its software – such as Nuke, above – are dependent on those tax breaks to attract work from Hollywood studios. However, their creative staff from VFX artists to matte painters are drawn from around the world and will move to other territories if that’s where the work is – with firms like MPC last year actively encouraging staff to move to its Canadian offices to fill roles there (Canada also has very good tax breaks for film companies).
Whittingdale also cites our language as being a success factor that won’t change, claiming that “they say to me, 'Brad Pitt, it's much easier to persuade him to spend six months if he's going to be in London, or in southern England, or northern England, or Dublin – somewhere where he'd speak the language – than if you send him off to Eastern Europe for six months.'"
Turning to immigration, Whittingdale clearly wants a deal with the EU that doesn’t include free movement of people – a central tenet of both the EU and the EEA. He says that by tightening immigration from mainland Europe, it’ll be easier for creative firms to hire from outside of Europe.
"At the moment you have this strange system whereby anybody who is a national of another member state can come here without any control at all,” he said, "and therefore because we're seeking to reduce the overall number, we have to impose stricter conditions on people coming from outside the EU. What I would like to see is a system whereby we apply the same eligibility test to everybody from wherever they come."
While the report covers higher and further education, it doesn’t mention GCSEs – where there are concerns over the government’s plans for the EBacc, a new way of grading the performance of secondary schools based on five ‘core' subject areas at GCSE (which are usually taken as seven GCSE: two English, two Science, Maths, a language and either Geography or History). This has been decried by many in the creative industries, as it could ‘downgrade’ creative subjects like art and design and lead to them becoming a lower priority with fewer resources. The coming introduction of the EBacc has been blamed for there being over 46,000 fewer GCSEs taken in 2016 than in 2015, as schools focus more on the ‘core’ subjects and less on creative ones.
There was a debate in Parliament on Monday as the result of a petition about the EBacc by Baccforthefuture and – while MPs explained why it was a bad idea at length and offered a variety of better solutions – schools minister Nick Gibb said that the government was going to continue with its plans.
I asked Whittingdale if he supported the EBacc.
“I don't want to see it changed,” he said. “The principle that we have a small number of core subjects [means that] it does not exclude the creative subjects from that."
However, he does concede that he’ll change his mind in the light on new evidence.
"We'd be very anxious if it appeared that it was going to create a long-term skill shortage,” he said. "Obviously, it's something we're going to watch [for]."
Photos supplied by The Foundry.