Yesterday several famous people signed a letter organised by the Stronger In campaign and the Prime Minister walked over the pedestrian crossing outside Abbey Road Studios. Just another day in the life of Britain’s unreal EU referendum.
Don’t get me wrong, I am as eager as the next man to read Benedict Cumberbatch’s political opinions. However, as I perused the impassioned and heartfelt letter to which Jude Law had also added his signature, I could not help but wonder at Aaron Wildavsky’s perennial policy question, “But is it true?”
For the most part, the letter repeats establishment talking points opposing a radical change to the way in which we do politics in this country and the biggest shake-up of the civil service in over 100 years. Echoing sentiments expressed by those selfless warriors after social justice and the public good, David Cameron and George Osborne, Cumberbatch and co tell us that: “many of us [them] have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding or by collaborating across borders”.
I would like to think it goes without saying that leaving the EU does not preclude collaboration across borders. Indeed, if we look at the Cultural Europe Programme, which provides state support for producers and distributors working in the audiovisual sector, we can see that every EEA state participates fully in the Culture and MEDIA sub-programmes, alongside EU Member States and non-EU Member States including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The Cultural Europe Programme has an annual budget of €182.2 million (around £140 million), which it distributes in the form of grants, aiming to “foster the safeguarding and promotion of European cultural and linguistic diversity and strengthen the competitiveness of the culture and creative sectors”. That money is obviously available to projects hosted across the EU and in other participating countries. By way of contrast, UK-based film productions—that is, excluding the far larger television, radio and computer game industries—expended roughly £1 billion last year.
The UK audiovisual sector is the largest in Europe in cash terms. If there is an industry that need not be concerned about the economic impact of EU exit it is film and television. The UK government would not attempt to leave the EU in anything other than measured steps. It is once Britain moves out into the EEA that we will start to examine and adapt policies to work in the national interest.
To that end, film policy—an area I know quite well—is rife for reform. Successive governments, starting with New Labour and the introduction of the UK Film Council (since folded into the BFI), have turned British film production into a corporatist racket, distributing massive tax breaks to Hollywood studios under the auspices of a policy instrument which was supposed to promote British storytelling.
Specifically, we may wish to review the wording of the BFI Cultural Test. What started out as a mechanism to let Labour ministers ponce around London as if they were Hollywood movie executives… Sorry, let me try that again. What I meant to say was a mechanism to shuffle money out of the public purse into the wallets of the US studios that produce the Bond and Harry Potter films… Dang! Last time… a means to support British film production (phew!), the Cultural Test has been adapted several times since then, making the criteria for what qualifies as a “British film” ever wider.
The latest version of the Cultural Test, introduced by the coalition in November 2014, refers not to “British” characters, actors, locations or subject matter, but to “British or EEA citizens or residents” and subject matter. In other words, a film set in Poland, based on a German short story about Hungarian characters who speak Finnish, could qualify as a “British film”, provided that at least 15 percent of its production budget was spent in the UK.
That may sound extreme, but it is also current UK government policy. What is much more common, however, is for Hollywood studios—with the consent of the UK government—to use the Cultural Test as a means to (effectively) cut production costs. I doubt that many people outside the industry are aware that, as far as the BFI and the UK government are concerned, Inception, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are “British films”. That is something we may wish to change.
Don’t call us Benedict, we’ll call you.