Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Creative Economy & Cultures of Production, Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity, Media Industries

The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited

Dr Jonathan Gross

CMCI began life in 2002 as an MA in Cultural & Creative Industries. This led in 2007 to the launch of the Centre for Culture, Media & Creative Industries, becoming a ‘Department’ in 2010. We now welcome students from all over the world to our three MA programmes (and soon to our new BA), many of whom plan to develop a career in the creative industries.

Given the ubiquity of the ‘creative industries’, some of our students may be surprised to learn that the phrase is only slightly older than CMCI itself. Where the idea of the creative industries comes from, and how it gained such rapid significance, is a story I tell in a new report, The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited.

Soon after winning the 1997 general election, Tony Blair’s Labour government set up a Creative Industries Task Force. This brought together ministers and civil servants with senior figures from film, music, fashion, publishing and advertising. The following year they produced a document that defined the creative industries for the first time, and estimated their contribution to the UK economy in terms of GDP and jobs. This was the 1998 Creative Industries Mapping Document. 

Few pieces of cultural policy have achieved the visibility of the Mapping Document. It has been widely influential and the subject of heated debate. However, the story has not been fully told of why and how the document was created. To help tell this story, I undertook a piece of oral history, speaking with those directly involved.

This research had two phases. The first was interviews with members of the Task Force who commissioned and produced the document. The second was a ‘witness seminar’, in which some of these interviewees then took part in a public discussion. Witness seminars have been employed since the late 1980s by academics researching contemporary British history. It was only in 2016, however, that the format was first used within cultural policy studies, with a session to mark the 70th anniversary of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Our witness seminar was held at Somerset House on 11th December 2018, almost exactly twenty years since the publication of the Mapping Document. (The transcript can be accessed here.)

Taking the interviews and the witness seminar together, the research demonstrates that whilst the Mapping Document is often understood as the archetypal piece of New Labour policy – exemplary of Blair’s Third Way politics – the story is more complicated than this, and more instructive. The repositioning of the Labour party within conditions of late 20th century economic transformation produced circumstances conducive to the creation of the Mapping Document and its promotion of the ‘creative industries’. However, caution should be exercised in reading the mapping work as central to the New Labour project. It was primarily driven by Chris Smith (the first Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport) and a small team of advisors; and was undertaken with extremely limited resources.

One of my report’s headlines is that, to understand the specific characteristics of the Mapping Document, including its contentious definition and statistics, we need to understand its genesis at different scales of causal explanation. This means recognising not only the alignments between different factors that brought it about – the global emergence of the ‘knowledge economy’, the repositioning of the Labour party after 18 years in opposition, the specific machinery of UK government, and the ideas of a small group of people – but also the disconnections and tensions between them.

In the report I show that it is the tensions between these different factors, as much as their alignments, that help us to understand how the Mapping Document became extremely influential, highly contentious, and, for many of those involved in the Task Force, both a huge success and a disappointment. Offering this kind of analysis, across multiple ‘scales’ of explanation, I hope the report not only helps to tell a specific story –  of where the ‘creative industries’ comes from, and how it first came to be defined and measured –  but also encourages further research (via oral history and ethnography) into the processes by which cultural policy develops.

Contestations over definitions and measurements continue to be consequential, shaping cultural policy and practice in many ways. I am currently involved in Developing Inclusive & Sustainable Creative Economies, a €2.9 million project funded by the European Commission via Horizon 2020, working with colleagues in CMCI – Roberta Comunian, Bridget Conor, Tamsyn Dent, Nick Wilson – and researchers in Finland, Latvia and Italy. Our central question is, ‘What are inclusive and sustainable creative economies, and how can they be developed?’. Amongst a range of concerns, this research pays attention to the relationships between definitions (of creative economy), practices of measurement (indexing and mapping), and policymaking.

The Birth of the Creative Industries Revisited is a story of a definition and a set of measurements generated in medias res: in the middle of the action. They were produced by particular people, seeking to achieve particular aims, at a particular time. From the ‘creative industries’ to (more recently) the ‘creative economy’ and beyond, understanding the role and significance of creativity within economies is an ongoing process, with potentially far-reaching implications for policy and practice. Recognising how this has been attempted in the past has an important role to play informing future such attempts: not least, by throwing light on the multiple forces that can act upon policymakers and researchers as they undertake this kind of work, in the middle of the action.