TAITMAIL One false move and the dancer gets it

The image here has become infamous, and the more it’s seen the more outrageous it becomes, so here it is again. Wrong on so many levels it is a glimpse, more than a glimpse, of how the government sees jobs in the arts. It doesn’t.

It was an ad for the government’s rather confusing National Cyber Security Centre CyberFirst programme aimed, says its website, at “young people aged 11-17 years” - and offering financial support to undergraduates safe in the knowledge that very few undergraduates are aged 11 to 17 - who want to become “the next generation of cyber security experts”.

But the point, of course, is the image. A young Asian girl called Fatima is seen tying on her ballet shoe with the implication that it’s a futile exercise – there will be no dancing job for Fatima because - why? Fatima is a girl? She’s Asian? Just time to reboot? Or is it that there will be no dancing in Dominic Cummings’s cyber-secure world? And ballet is so closely allied to tech skills that enlightened, redirected 11-to-17-year-old Fatima would be a shoo-in.

And the piquancy of the thing is that it was put out on the very day Oliver Dowden announced the £257m in grants to venues and organisations from the £1.57bn Cultural Rescue Fund, none of which was directed at freelance workers like Fatima is, or aspires to be.

The culture secretary responded by distancing himself from the ad, saying it didn’t come from DCMS and he really wanted to “save jobs in the arts”, while a spokesman for Boris Johnson said the ad was “not appropriate” and had been removed, and of course the “government recognises the challenge to the cultural industry”. But all this only after the twitter storm had descended. 

It’s bad enough as a one-off, but of course it isn’t. Last week Rishi Sunak was alleged in a tweet from ITV News to have told a reporter that artists should look for “new opportunities”.

“I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis” he said, and when pressed on whether musicians, artists and actors should seek new careers he added, “Can things happen in exactly the same way as they did? No. But everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality”.

“There you have it” Labour MP Pat McFadden tweeted. “Govt throws culture - an area where the U.K. has real global influence - under the bus”, but Sunak then insisted that that wasn’t what he’d said nor what he thinks, and entered into a semantic postmortem on the exact wording. 

Here is the actual exchange, verbatim: ITV – “We are a country that created so many fabulous musicians and artists and actors. And you're effectively saying, look, we know it's hard but maybe go and get another job"; Sunak - "I think probably you're not being quite right in that there is no work available for everyone at all. I mean actually, funnily enough, as in all walks to life, everyone's having to adapt”. So there was a pretty explicit question, and if the response was not in the context of the question what was his context? 

Funnily enough, one’s thought goes to the story that fluttered across twitter a couple of weeks ago. It had Sir Sam Mendes reportedly phoning up Johnson to beg him to get theatres open as a matter of urgency. He was given the familiar bromide of “My dear Sam, as soon as it’s reasonably safe” and Johnson ended the call. But he didn’t hang up properly and a third voice, of someone who had obviously been listening in, added: “And the last people we’re going to let back to work are those fucking dancers!” 

Cue Fatima’s career advice. Those dancers, and actors, curators, artists, stagehands, architects, designers, musicians and so on, are part of the huge freelance army that occupies the creative sector which employs around 3m people, 35% of them self-employed, so that’s about 1m people. Self-employed and freelancers are famously not catered for in the government’s various rescue programmes and Sunak is obdurate that he isn’t going to change his mind. With his furlough agreement running out at the end of this month, many are getting their redundancy notices. 

So despite 1,385 theatres, galleries, performance groups, arts organisations, museums and local venues sharing £257m in rescue fund handouts, none of it is specifically for the freelance workforce. And there were more than 500 applicants to the fund that failed to get anything, meaning another bucketload of Fatimas in the queue for cyber security training.

What the government has clearly recognised is that the creative industries are worth billions to the economy but it seems to think that all that cash is made by buildings. As long as the money rolls in what happens inside those buildings is of no interest. But nothing happens in them without those creative people now lining up behind Fatima – numbering, according to the think tank Oxford Economics, rather more than 400,000. We'll have a cyber security workforce that's work-beating.

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