Response to the paper Government and the Value of Culture by the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell.
Submitted by Sylvia Harvey and Margaret Dickinson, 19 July, 2004

Response to the paper, Government and the Value of Culture, by the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell.

Sylvia Harvey
Principal Associate Director

Margaret Dickinson
Senior Research Fellow

19 July 2004

We welcome the opportunity to respond to Tessa Jowell's paper, and the general direction of the arguments developed within it. We are responding here to the five questions posed at the end of the paper and principally with reference to examples from film culture.

a) Is my analysis of the intrinsic value of culture correct?
We agree with your general argument that the arts have intrinsic value and should be supported for their own sake. We agree that funding for the arts should not be justified only in terms of indirect benefits such as improving the balance of payments or maintaining public order although such outcomes are obviously desirable.

We are concerned, however, that your examples are all drawn from the traditional arts. In our view the same considerations apply to the modern arts including aspects of film and television. We recognise that much of the government support for cultural industries is provided for economic reasons, to help those industries become more competitive and to create jobs. But insofar as some support is also given on cultural grounds, the principles applied should be the same as those operating in the case of theatre or music. The tension you discuss between access and excellence also applies to cinema and television. You suggest that the arts should not be 'forced to pursue box office at all costs' and we would take this to endorse the importance of giving exposure to complex, possibly difficult work on television and in the cinema. Policies to ensure that this happens will require a different rationale from those relating to competitiveness.

b) Is there any value in saying it? Or should politicians just keep quiet?
The issue of cultural value is important and we think it is helpful for politicians to raise the issue and to attempt to give it a more public profile. However, we also recognise the long-standing concern that cultural funding (whether in the traditional arts or in the modern arts of film and television) should not be driven by predominantly party-political concerns. We think it is desirable, where possible, to achieve a broad political consensus on the value and significance of cultural funding, as well as to support the independence of creative people including film-makers and the makers of television programmes.

c) How, in going beyond targets, can we best capture the value of culture?
You have commented on some of the reasons why it is difficult to define or quantify the value of art in general or the value, as opposed to price, of particular works. You have indicated that the market is not the only arbiter of quality, and we agree with this point. We would add that critical opinion can also be volatile and may change from one generation to the next. There are many examples in literature, film and the visual arts of works which are now both popular and critically respected but which initially either failed to appeal to the public or were dismissed by the critics or suffered both fates.

We would suggest that there is no precise or objective way of making judgements about support for the arts but that it is necessary to operate with mixed criteria, including expert judgement - the opinion of fellow artists or film-makers and informed critics - as well as the reaction of the public. The other key to success lies in an openness and pluralism of approach in the allocation of resources. In the cultural field it is important to avoid entrusting too large a share of funds to one person's taste and judgement.

In respect of film we think there may be a tension here between the creation of a unitary body designed to deal with all film matters (the UK Film Council) and the desirability of both a variety of funding sources and a variety of operational judgements in the allocation of funding. Although we acknowledge that the creation of two major funds within the Film Council, as well as the system of 'franchising out' production offer some support for the principle of pluralism.

d) Do we underpin targets with something else - longer term funding agreements underpinned by a lighter touch but more intelligent review that focuses on cultural outcomes?

We think that longer term funding agreements are desirable as long as these operate within a framework of clear and agreed objectives and within the spirit of pluralism, that they offer a measure of flexibility to meet changing circumstances and that they work, in practice, according to the principles of transparency and public accountability. We agree with your proposals if your reference to 'longer term agreements underpinned by a lighter touch but more intelligent review' can be taken to mean that:
(i) government should place more trust in the judgement of arts and film practitioners and professionals, and
(ii) government or its delegated bodies should make decisions on whether to continue or withdraw support on the basis of a substantial body of achieved work, incorporating also the principle of support for experiment and the 'right to fail'. We think that the process of expert and 'peer review' has an important - though not exclusive - role to play in assessing the outcomes of public spending.

e) How can we achieve this?
We will address this question by focussing on one of our areas of study, the cinema.

(i) The UK Film Council (UKFC) is the main vehicle for delivering government film policy. Its written objectives indicate that it supports film as business and as culture. The creation of a single organisation to support film in all its aspects has been advocated for sixty years and is, in principle, welcomed by many in the film world. This creation has, moreover, been matched by some good work in devolving aspects of film funding into the English regions (while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain their own distinctive national bodies). The present practice, however, worries many of the film-makers, exhibitors and critics who work with the more challenging kinds of cinema. They claim to have experienced a decline in support since the UK Film Council was formed. We share their view that although directly and indirectly the government has very much increased its funding for film since 1997, there has been a decline in funds provided for work relating to the many kinds of cinema not normally seen in the multiplexes.

(ii) The reason, in our view, is that the UK Film Council was structured and its Board appointed principally with a view to addressing the issues of competitiveness and profitability (box office success). By contrast, the Council's cultural objectives have not been as precisely framed or addressed. As a result these cultural objectives are treated as subsidiary to the main business of achieving profitability and not as goals in their own right. It is true that significant funding is still granted to the British Film Institute (BFI) for preservation, education and scholarship. But the BFI has been stripped of its role in stretching audience taste through assisting the production and exhibition of challenging films. Funds previously allocated to the BFI for these purposes have been entrusted to the UKFC.

(iii) We think, therefore, that the UKFC - as presently constituted - is inadequately equipped to take decisions about cultural funding. The current practice for funding both film production and exhibition appears to be that senior administrators take decisions without reference to relevant peer assessment. And in the absence of administrative decision-making that routinely takes account of a variety of views and opinions from outside the organisation, the Council's main Board is likely to exercise a predominant influence.

This Board, we suggest, currently lacks an appropriate range of expertise, and appears not to direct managers to take appropriate 'soundings' and advice from the wider film culture. The UKFC describes the Board as 'drawn from film industry and film education', but there appears to be little recognition of the concept of the art of cinema or of the diversities of film culture. And there is - in practice - little representation from the educational sector. There is currently one distinguished academic on the Board but there are no exhibitors or film-makers working predominantly in the area referred to by the UKFC as 'specialised' cinema. It may also be noted that the creative workforce is poorly represented, as there appear to be no technicians, actors, writers or musicians. Mainstream and multiplex-oriented industry expertise appears predominant. This is extremely valuable to the Council, but may not be sufficient for it to carry out all of its duties in an informed and effective manner.

(iv) These observations arise not only in respect of current circumstances but also reflect a long-standing problem in relation to film, namely, that the business has always tended to be suspicious of its intellectuals. This can be seen from hostility to the formation of the first film societies in the 1920s, from attempts to restrict the remit of the BFI since its founding in the 1930s and from (continuing) criticism of government funding for work which does not have obvious box office potential. In other arts, commercial players are less hostile to the practice of investing public funds in non-commercial areas of excellence. The impresarios of the London West End theatre and the promoters of music festivals do not routinely criticise the Arts Council for subsidising other kinds of theatre and music. Yet, even though those commercial players often applaud subsidised work, the Arts Council does not put them in charge of the allocation of grants. By contrast, in the film world, we currently have a situation as if the owner of a chain of West End theatres was a major influence on deciding grant aid to the Almeida Theatre or as if the agent of U2 was influencing whether to support a particular string quartet.

(v) In order to fulfil the cultural aspects of film policy the government may need to consider some adjustment to existing structures of decision making, for example, in respect of the composition of the main Board of UKFC, and in respect of the principle of peer review. In this way, the full range of Council objectives can be addressed, and different kinds of decisions, at various levels, can be properly informed.

(vi) An alternative solution would be to make the government's Department of Culture Media and Sport, rather than the UKFC, the point where culture and commerce meet and the place where decisions about the relative significance of each are made. In this scenario the DCMS would fund the BFI directly, instead of via the UKFC, and would move responsibility for achieving the broader and more pluralistic objectives in film exhibition and production from the UKFC to the BFI.



Sylvia Harvey
Professor of Broadcasting Policy
Principal Associate Director
AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies
Faculty of Media and Humanities
University of Lincoln
Brayford Pool
Lincoln LN6 7TS

Tel: 01522 886431


Margaret Dickinson
Senior Research Fellow



Last modified 2 August, 2004 ;