Do our creative industries have the hunger – or the nous – for the globalised age?

Will Turner
Thursday 10 June 2010 00:00

A difficult summer is ahead. After 10 years of growth and innovation – from Sky Plus to the iPlayer – the British creative industries cannot escape the cuts or structural realignment necessary to dig ourselves out of the cyclical and systemic hole in which we find ourselves.

These industries are potentially an export engine in a world where Britain has in-built geographic and linguistic advantages. This country also has a talent surplus compared to many competing markets. But without a cohesive approach, the UK risks remaining a centre of talent and innovation that serves only to enrich other countries.

All is not lost. Many sections of the industry have held up very well despite the recession. In films, UK box office takings reached a record-breaking £944m last year, and UK films grossed $2bn ($1.37bn) worldwide. We are world leaders in independent TV production, where Simon Cowell, Shine and others contribute to a bigger indy sector than exists in other European nations or the US. Our video games industry now generates £2bn in annualised global sales. We have a rich vein of contemporary music talent, such as MIA, Arctic Monkeys and Gorillaz; world-class museums; a hugely vibrant theatre scene, and so on. We are probably the second most important creative country in the world in terms of the quality and reach of the content that we produce.

The seismic shift in technology is throwing up some great creativity as people at once have less money and more freedom. The contemporary art market is spawning a new generation of YBAs (young British artists), in part because they have been freed up from thinking like PR-driven gallerists. Media convergence is helping to break down barriers and allow cross-pollination between different areas; the crossover between the games industry and the film industry is just one example.

Given the coming explosion in the consumption and volume of digital content over the next five years, we face a fundamental question. What should we be doing in the UK to enhance Britain's creative reputation and enable our effective monetisation of that content?

There are two big issues here. We need a world-class delivery system that can act as a digital platform for the future so that we can innovate, distribute and create as fast and as well as anyone else. We need a plan to roll out super-fast broadband on fibre optics. The US, France, Germany and Australia have all announced comprehensive national initiatives with ambitious headline targets. Virgin and BT's recent initiatives on broadband speeds and connectivity are welcome. But there will need to be some kind of intervention. BT's ducts will be opened up to others who wish to use their pipes, poles and infrastructure to enhance and build their own networks. As will the sewers and pipes of utility companies. This will serve to help to decrease the costs of network building significantly. The new Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt unveiled more ambitious broadband targets in a speech this week, but what was missing was a coherent plan for how they can be achieved although he says this will follow.

The second issue is piracy. Here there need to be "stick and carrot" measures for broadband users; and some prosecution for extreme repeat offenders. A campaign is required to educate the "lost generation", who think content is free, that there is a value associated with creative products. We need good, trusted, branded portals that deliver content reliably and easily and that micro-charge for the access. ISPs need to work with the regulators in a more constructive way. Forget the civil liberties argument. It's bogus. But so is the claim the ISP should be the internet's policemen.

There is a solution here. More engagement and "stick" will, I think, get us there and cross the huge cultural divide between the content owners and the ISP owners. But a lot more must be done to stop other creative industries suffering the same fate as the music business, where it's estimated that only 4 per cent of downloaded music is paid for. It may be already too late for old, incumbent, legacy media companies that have not planned to overhaul their business models and change the scale and scope of their organisations. But if we have good infrastructure and technologies, other homegrown challenger business should take over. In that scenario, the UK may not be completely swamped by the likes of YouTube, Google, Facebook et al.

This is where I'd like to make a plea for privatizing BBC Worldwide. We have a brand that is global, and a company that has a pretty good digital media base from which to expand. Sell it. Allow it to use the main BBC brand under long licence and let it try to establish the kind of global foothold that not one company from the UK does online at the moment. We need a big gorilla out there, and we should set it free so long as innovation isn't stifled within the creative community domestically as a result. On the US West Coast, where I spend a good deal of time with "the usual suspects" that dominate the US internet, I am asked time and time again why we don't do this. And they're right.

The UK competition commission needs to become more worldly, taking a broader view on protecting some of our best businesses, rather than imposing restrictions that are out of date. Media companies that are hobbled by regulation need to be deregulated as quickly as possible. ITV is a case in point, if it isn't already too late.

You may not like News Corp, or think what they're trying to do with pay walls will work, but I applaud James Murdoch for his potentially game-changing thinking in charging for the content of The Times and The Sunday Times. We'll not need to wait too long to see whether it was the right bet. Managers who can take risks and make a portfolio of strategy choices to cover the unknown will flourish. Those led by others will watch their businesses fail faster and faster.

Lastly, we need more funding for creative people working in the digital media sector by way of venture capital and private equity. I should declare an interest (or disinterest!) as this is part of my day job, but there's not enough money around to back the right ideas at the moment. There need to be more funds run by tech and digital-media savvy folk from the UK. And we need to be able to hold on to these companies as they expand, not always sell out to a US investor at growth-capital stage. We have the creative industries and the creative élan. Let's amplify the "Creative Britain" brand globally, particularly in economies such as India, and build our ability to monetise our own content. Failure would consign another UK industrial sector to supplier status. Success would convert our creative talent into global leaders.

Will Turner is chief executive of The Hospital Group, owners of London's The Hospital Club

The 2010 Hospital Club 100

The Hospital Club 100, in association with The Independent, has begun a search for the most influential people in the British creative and media industries. The emphasis is on current contribution and importance – not just the size of someone's celebrity status, profile, bank balance, titles or past reputation. The list is unique in that it contains both emerging and established names, highlighting those who will be influencing Creative Britain's immediate and long-term future. It's time to have your say, so get voting, on

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