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4 March 2010

Culture and consensus

Ben Bradshaw, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster struggle to disagree about the future of arts funding.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Last night, I went to listen to a debate, hosted at Kings Place in London by the Cultural Leadership Programme, between the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, and his Tory and Lib Dem shadows, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster. The question the speakers had been invited to address was: “What lies ahead for the cultural and creative industries?”

They were introduced by Liz Forgan, chair of the Arts Council, who acknowledged that “black recessionary clouds are looming”. Arts funding bodies had better “prepare for tough times”, she warned.

Although there was an invitation contained in Forgan’s remarks to each of the speakers to be explicit about what they thought would happen to arts funding in what Bradshaw acknowledged was a “challenging” economic climate, the debate was, in truth, mostly blandly consensual.

Bradshaw, Hunt and Foster all eulogised the contribution that the arts make to the nation’s “well-being”, as well as to the economy. And each reiterated his party’s commitment to the “arm’s-length” principle for arts funding (according to which funds should be disbursed by bodies such as the Arts Council without government interference).

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The closest they came to disagreement was over their understanding of what is meant by what Bradshaw called the “mixed economy” in the arts — the combination of government funding and philanthropic largesse that distinguishes the British model from its American and European counterparts. Hunt agreed that ensuring a “multiplicity of funding sources” was essential in straitened economic circumstances, but made a point of saying that the Conservatives would “boost philanthropy” and argued that we shouldn’t allow the financial crisis to obscure the contribution made by endowments.

And while he genuflected towards the arm’s-length principle, Hunt also argued that all arts “quangos” should “bear down on their admin costs as much as possible” — a nod to the “bonfire of the quangos” that David Cameron promised last year. Admin costs, Hunt insisted, were out of control, and argued that these should not exceed 5 per cent of each funding body’s overall budget — a claim to which Foster, in particular, gave short shrift, describing the 5 per cent figure as “mythical”.

That was as heated as it got. Hunt then had to leave early for another engagement, before anyone could ask him the really important question about Tory cultural policy: to what extent are the Conservatives’ positions on the media dictated by BSkyB? Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian a couple of days ago, noticed an alarming pattern:

[T]he Murdochs constantly demand a cut in the licence fee. Last year Cameron nodded dutifully, and called for an immediate freeze in the licence fee. That would have marked an unprecedented break in the multi-year financial settlement that is so integral to the BBC’s independence — preventing it from constantly having to make nice to the politicians to keep the money coming in.

Second only to their loathing of the BBC is the Murdochs’ hatred of Ofcom, the regulator that stands between them and monopolistic domination of the entire UK media landscape. They particularly dislike Ofcom snooping into pay-TV, an area that makes billions for Sky. How odd, then, that a matter of days after the regulator published a proposal that would have forced Sky to charge less for its sport and movie channels, Cameron, in a speech on quangos, suddenly singled out Ofcom, suggesting it would be cut “by a huge amount”, possibly even replaced altogether.