Should Rishi retrain in ballet? Untangling Sunak’s comments on the arts

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For the past few days, my Facebook feed has been filled with reactions of outrage to Rishi Sunak’s that a career in the arts is not ‘viable’ and that musicians should retrain into other professions. Following an interview with Rishi Sunak on Tuesday 6th October, ITV News Politics tweeted that “@RishiSunak suggests musicians and others in the arts should retrain and find other jobs”.

Against this background, a government advert for Cyber First began circulating on social media, depicting a ballerina with the caption “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet). Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.”. Unsurprisingly, this generated a social media storm and enraged many including myself. Therefore I jumped at the opportunity to write this article to express my indignation at Mr Sunak’s comments.

The Government’s Cyber First campaign uses the image of “Fatima”, taken by the photographer Krys Alex in 2017. Image Credit: HM Government.

However, having formed my impression of the story based upon the ITV article, tweets, and social media messaging, I thought that I should watch the original video of the interview. What I saw came as a real surprise. (And see verbatim transcription at the end of this article). Mr Sunak at no point suggests that musicians should retrain into different jobs. A typical paraphrase that I have seen is that, when the interviewer suggests ‘that’s you saying [to musicians and performers], go and get a different job’, Mr Sunak responds, ‘that’s a fresh and new opportunity for people, that’s exactly what we should be doing’’. The ‘new opportunity’ to which he refers is Kickstart, a government scheme entirely unrelated to the arts, which aims to create new jobs for young people.

Furthermore, Mr Sunak goes on to mention ways in which the arts can adapt, such as theatre performances and music lessons online. Of course, these are not satisfactory responses and the government needs to be doing far more to support the arts – however the dominant impression given by social media and the media completely misconstrues Sunak’s statement. ITV has recognised this inaccuracy and since changed their statement: their tweet has now been deleted, and the article title changed “to reflect that the Chancellor’s comments were about employment generally and not specifically about the music or arts sectors.”. The title now reads, “Rishi Sunak says people in ‘all walks of life’ are having to adapt for employment”.

‘Sunak’s message has been significantly distorted , and the dominant narrative on social media is a misrepresentation of what has actually been said.’

Similarly, the Cyber First advert has been taken somewhat out of context. The government Cyber First initiative to encourage people from a wide variety of professions and walks of life to retrain into cyber. The advert is part of a series, which also depicts shop workers and bakers for example. It is unfortunate that the timing of the advert coincided with publication of Mr Sunak’s alleged statement. I am hesitant to go as far as to say that people have ‘misinterpreted’ Mr Sunak’s message. However, I will certainly say that the message has been significantly distorted , and the dominant narrative on social media is a misrepresentation of what has actually been said. The nature of social media lends itself to short, striking, memorable messages that are emotive and easy to share – and thus the message is passed along, becoming warped, as in a game of Chinese whispers.

Of course, this does not change my personal view of the importance of music to society, and thus the desperate need for increased government support for the arts. However, I am not the cohort this campaign is trying to persuade – there is no use preaching to the converted. We need to persuade those in government who do not currently place enough value on the arts. Is a campaign based on a fundamental misrepresentation of facts the most persuasive way to go about this? We must be careful that misrepresentation does not undermine the validity of the campaign. We should be challenging the government based on what they have done and what they have failed to do; and on solid facts which support our cause – of which there are many (these facts are from the Musicians’ Union website):

  • 70% of musicians are unable to undertake more than a quarter of their usual work.
  • 36% of musicians do not have any work at all.
  • 19% of musicians were considering leaving the profession, due to a lack of work, and insufficiency of the government’s support provision.

‘We should be challenging the government based on what they have done and what they have failed to do.’

There is no doubt that these are very hard times for musicians. Furthermore, the government’s attempts are not nearly enough. Despite the £1.5bn Mr Sunak says has been pumped into the arts in the past few months, approximately 70% of theatres say they will run out of money this year; and the Musicians’ Union (MU) warns that half of UK music venues could easily be lost during the crisis, if they continue to lack ‘more permanent support’ from the government. The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) is not nearly enough – 45% of musicians are not covered by the scheme, and the maximum that freelancers can get is 20% of their usual pay. Why is there not as much support given to creative industries as to bars and restaurants?

A socially distanced concert would be far less risky for Covid transmissions than a crowded bar. The MU has suggested a ‘Seat Out to Help Out’ scheme to facilitate live performances. Yes, the government’s resources are limited and scarce, but why is the creative arts industry always last on the list of priorities? There are far more jobs than just performers that are in jeopardy – The Creative Industries contribute a huge amount to the UK economy, measured at £13million every hour in February 2020. Lessons in the arts are the lowest priority to be put back into schools as they emerge from lockdown. Furthermore, the frustrating irony is that the moment we have lockdown, everyone turns to the arts to keep them sane. Imagine a lockdown in which you cannot listen to music, watch Netflix, nor read any books – to name just a few of the ways the arts are entwined in our daily routines. The arts play such a fundamental role in people’s day to day existence, that people don’t even notice the music until it stops. We must ensure people realise the value before it is too late.

Here are a few things we can do to raise awareness of the importance of the arts:

  • Use this template created by the Musicians Union to compose a letter to your MP.
  • Sign this petition, an open letter to the chancellor as part of the #MakeMusicWork campaign.

Although these are bleak times for musicians, lockdown has proven how indispensable music and the arts are across society – in the fabric of our daily lives, and bringing together people within communities, and across larger society. Moreover, we will never stop making music, it is such an integral part of our existence and emotional expression. It is the times in which we feel the most hopeless, that our need for music is the greatest. Often adversity has inspired some of the some of the most powerful and influential artworks. And so perhaps it is in these darkest of times, that the future of music will become brighter than ever. And maybe it has to reach this crisis point for our government and society to realise how indispensable the arts and music truly are.

Featured image: Andrew Parsons via Flickr

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