The government’s attitude to Fatima and the arts will put them on the wrong side of history – they just don’t know it yet

Kill the dreams of every Fatima, dismiss their jobs as ‘unviable’ and we’ll lose the entertainment that keeps us sane

Marianka Swain
Monday 12 October 2020 18:08 BST
The government has been criticised for an advert, encouraging people in the arts to retrain in cyber
The government has been criticised for an advert, encouraging people in the arts to retrain in cyber

The latest tone-deaf salvo from our government to the creative sector is a CyberFirst campaign (belatedly removed after an outcry), one part of which depicts a ballet dancer called Fatima. The text reads: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)”, alongside the tagline “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.”

But they’ve got this all wrong. It’s not up to Fatima to retrain – although if she did, she’d do a better job at running a testing and tracing system than our government. No, it’s up to politicians to rethink their attitude to the arts, reskill in their policy-making and communications, and reboot their relationship with the creative sector. They’re on the wrong side of history here – they just don’t know it yet.

That bracketed phrase – “she just doesn’t know it yet” – comes across as a sinister threat. Enjoy dancing while you can, Fatima – it’s all going to be ripped away from you! It isn’t presented as an informed choice, so much as the plotting of an Orwellian state deciding its citizens’ futures without their knowledge or consent on the basis of an algorithm.

Particularly grim is the unthinking use of an image of a woman of colour, given the extra structural barriers many from the BAME community have to overcome. Is it really necessary to implicitly tell young dancers that someone who looks like Fatima isn’t valued?

The unfortunate subtext here is: “You must not entertain aspirations above your station.” After all, it’s not like you’re an MP, who landed their preferred job through family money and connections, or who managed to fail up as spectacularly as Dido Harding – the very definition of “low-skilled” worker who would benefit from a career change.

Although it’s not yet been confirmed when the campaign first launched, it’s certainly intended for use in 2020. There is some bizarrely blithe wording on the tech skills website QA, under a Government logo: “If your career plan’s been altered this year, you’re not alone. 2020 has shaken up jobs – but most successful careers have a turning point.” Lost your entire livelihood due to an unprecedented pandemic? Just consider it a turning point and get cracking with that cyber certificate.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden – peevishly blindsided, as usual, by his own cabinet’s policy – hastily tweeted that this was “a partner campaign” aimed at people “from all walks of life”, rather than just targeting the arts. However, as an image, it’s hard to think of a more cruel and crystalline distillation of this government’s contemptuous attitude to the creative industry.

Contempt that is entirely unwarranted. Rather than a bunch of freeloading luvvies asking for a handout, as seems to be the view of some in power, this is an industry that contributes more than £10 billion a year to the UK economy, and directly fuels many of the other sectors currently in crisis, such as hospitality, accommodation, travel and tourism.

Yet this downright nasty campaign is indicative of a sneering, dismissive attitude. Who cares if Fatima has dedicated years of her life to gruelling training, building up expert skills, making huge sacrifices, and persevering despite the hardships, rejections and calls – like this – to “get a proper job”? Trade in those pointe shoes for a malware handbook. It’s certainly a downbeat new ending to Billy Elliot.

Actually, most people in the arts already do have a “proper” job, supporting their passion with work in retail or offices, among many others. That’s because, compared with many other nations, our government makes little investment in the industry that pours billions into its coffers and enhances the UK’s reputation around the world.

How about, instead of wantonly destroying a sector that was thriving pre-pandemic – and will again if it’s helped through this catastrophic period – we support it, and give arts workers the respect they deserve?

The £1.57 billion rescue package, which finally announced some of its grants today, is a good start, although that’s only designed to support the arts until March 2021, by which point venues need full, non-socially distanced openings to survive. Added to this, the fund primarily props up buildings, not the tens of thousands of freelancers who have been hung out to dry.

Even if we think purely selfishly, rather than caring about those workers, we’re risking the annihilation of something that benefits us all. Kill the dreams of every Fatima, dismiss their jobs as “unviable”, while preventing them from working, and we’ll lose the entertainment that keeps us sane during lockdowns, which feeds our minds and souls, and which is a key part of our national identity.

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