Why the arts matter

Politicians are right to make this an election issue.

You'd expect the tabloids to belittle the government's commitment to the arts, but from the Guardian it just sounds weird. In a blog headlined "Don't vote for 'arts policy'", Jonathan Jones argues: "At these kinds of times, when the nation's future is held in the electoral balance, you realise exactly how silly and trivial the media fiction of 'the arts' actually is." He concludes his piece with the dismissive assertion that: "There are bigger things at stake than a new paint job for the National Theatre lobby."

Do the arts really amount to "the cultural comforts of the middle classes", as Jones says? Is the issue so trivial? I don't think so, and neither do the politicians.

In 2001, the then culture secretary Chris Smith wrote (PDF) that "our creative industries . . . are a real success story, and a key element in today's knowledge economy". These sectors, of course, are sustained by the "lifeblood" of what Smith called "original creativity", which in turn depends upon a healthy attitude to the arts in Westminster to fund institutions, programmes and so forth.

The costs are small, especially when set against their rewards -- the UK's major museums and galleries produce annual profits of £1.5bn; music brings in £5bn a year and theatre £2.6bn. According to Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, when Liverpool was the European capital of culture in 2008, "£800m was generated for the local economy and 27 per cent more visitors were attracted than in previous years".

This is why the first British Inspiration Awards, scheduled to take place on 23 April in London, has the vocal endorsement of all three major political parties. "I am enormously proud of the talented people in this country who, through their creative and entrepreneurial gifts, illuminate their lives and enrich ours," said Gordon Brown, while David Cameron offered: "We should be proud of that heritage. I welcome the opportunity this event brings to celebrate our many creative successes."

In purely fiscal terms, the arts sector is a major employer and earner for the UK. It's more important than ever to insist upon its upkeep.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland