Interview with Shadow Heritage Minister Chris Smith

By Alan Fountain and Marc Karlin

It’s been said for a long time that there is only an inch of difference between the Labour Party and the Conservative Government. Alan Fountain and Marc Karlin spoke recently to Chris Smith, then Shadow Heritage Minister, and were pleased to learn his plans for a future Labour Government went further than the famous inch. Vertigo hopes his successor will be equally forthright.

Vertigo: What do you think is the government’s role in the cultural life of the nation?

Chris Smith: I think that the important thing when looking at the relationship between government and cultural taste. What it can do, however, is to promote cultural activity at all. Whereas if you look back, for example, to the time when Jennie Lee was the first Arts Minister, there really was the sense of a government that felt the arts mattered. Similarly, look at what’s happening in Australia at the moment, where Paul Keating has seized on the notion that the arts and culture are essential ingredients for what makes Australians Australian, what fives them a sense of identity as a community. He has developed an extremely active policy of promoting the arts and other forms of cultural activity. The other example I would quote is that of the late, lamented GLC in its final days. The GLC was enormously popular for 3 reasons: one was that Mrs Thatcher was trying to get rid of it; the second was that it had an amazingly sensible transport policy; the third was that it gave a real lift to the cultural life of the capital. It threw open the foyer of the Festival Hall for people to come and wander through, it had firework displays on the Thames, it had concerts in Battersea Park, it put investment into theatre and art groups. There was a real sense that things were happening in London, that it was a fun place to be, that these were all part of the stuff that makes life worth living, and that it was a legitimate, responsible role for government at either local or national level to say: ‘These things are important, we want to support them.’

V: How do you perceive the relationship between what you have been talking about and the Labour Party’s wholehearted acceptance of the rigours of the market? After all, the GLC was operating at a time when the word ‘subsidy’ was still part of the political vocabulary.

CS: I would perhaps want to qualify the word ‘wholehearted’. I think the phrasing that most neatly sums it up is: ‘The market where possible, and regulation where necessary.’ There are some things which either need to be regulated by the community as a whole, or be supported or provided by the community as a whole. And I think this recognition runs across the board from health provision to education and to the arts. No one in their wildest dreams is talking about massive amounts of money pouring into the arts. For small sums of investment you can get an enormous return in terms of artistic and cultural activity, and that’s a lesson, I think, that a Labour government will want to accept.

V: You said ‘small amounts of money’, but the pressures of the market have already had a significant impact on culture. In a dreamless age, what is the role of culture?

CS: I don’t think that any age is a dreamless age. People may be forced at times to suppress their dreams, and may be forced to become more cynical but they don’t stop believing in stories, and they don’t stop living their lives by myth and belief and hope. I grew up in the 60s when the overwhelming sense of the whole culture of the age was that there was hope, you could change things, the world could become a better place and we could make democratic decisions to achieve it. And then, of course, came the cynical 80s and 90s when we lost the sense of the ability to hope and to change things. Now I think this sense is beginning to return.

V: If we could go now to the film industry... Could you give us the outlines of the Labour Party’s policy – what would you like to see brought into being?

CS: We haven’t got a fully worked out, signed, sealed and packaged policy on the needs of the film industry, but we can give some pointers. The first thing to say is that most people within the industry are saying the way forward to encourage investment is to create fiscal incentives. What forms of fiscal incentives we would want to put into place is a matter for discussion, and obviously also subject to the general rule that it would be foolish of us to be specific about any of our taxation proposals so far in advance of an election.

One of the things we are looking at very closely is what’s happened with the Irish film initiatives. We are doing this for two reasons: one is that they have clearly been successful in promoting film-making activity in Ireland; but secondly, they have also been successful in bringing money into the Irish exchequer. They have demonstrated that if you get the mechanisms right, you can have something that is self-financing and may even be profitable for the exchequer. So I want to be able to present Gordon Brown with a win-win situation where we get incentives for the film industry, but we also get income for the exchequer, and I think we can achieve that.

The second thing I’d say is that we need to beef up the work of the British Film Commission. We need to do this in order to offer foreign filmmakers an effective one-stop service, i.e. help in choosing locations, getting through all the bureaucratic red tape, etc. etc. Sidney Samuelson, with his staff of 8 and an £800,000 budget, is very stretched to be able to provide that sort of service, whereas all it took was a phone call from Mel Gibson to the Irish government and the red carpet was rolled out instantly, and every facility was made available to him to make his film possible.

The third thing is that government itself ought to get its act together. A lot of assistance with film production needs the Department of Heritage, the Department of Environment and the Department of Transport all to work in proper conjunction with another. There are no facilities at the moment for that sort of liaison to occur, and it should.

V: We can see the red carpet the Irish have given Mel Gibson to walk on, but let’s talk about a few of the perhaps moth-eaten carpets – or mats – of the British film industry. In order to do this, can we ask what films you yourself go to see, and how does that inform your policy?

CS: (laughs): I can at least remember the last film I went to see! I’ve seen Forrest Gump, Pricilla, Quiz Show, The Madness Of King George, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Priest. I probably don’t get enough opportunities to see things that are less in the blockbuster category, largely a function of not having the time to do so.

V: We understand about an MP’s time and so on, but there’s a lot of independent work which never gets recognition or support or interest from the Labour party. In fact, the so-called cultural end of the film industry has been enormously successful. You’ve talked about the commercial side of the industry, but you’ve said little about this crucial sector. What policy would you adopt for it?

CS: Independent, smaller-scale film production is crucially important, partly for its own sake, but also because without that sort of activity going on, you are not going to get the bigger pieces coming along subsequently. It’s absolutely crucial that this sector is supported. I’m wary of direct government investment or sponsorship. Civil servants are the last people who should be determining what money to make available to the film industry. Certainly the work of the BFI needs to be encouraged, but I can’t promise any extra money at this stage. But it would be a strong candidate for increased investment if it were available. What, however, is becoming available is additional funding from the National Lottery. This money could be invested in training, education and also used to the promotion of film.

V: It’s not just a question of films being produced, it’s also a question of films being shown. You can produce any amount of films, but if there are no subsidies for distribution, what would be the point of making them?

CS: On the question of exhibition and distribution, it seems to me, and this is a crucially important issue, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report was not particularly helpful. It said that one or two bits and pieces ought to be tightened up, but that there was basically no problem. Well, I think there is a problem, particularly in the effect of vertical integration within the system where particular chains of cinemas will show particular films from particular stables, all of them American. Now the question is: how do you best break into that? I suspect the GATT argument is now not able to be disinterred, but I think we can take a pretty sharp look at the way in which films that are not part of the vertically integrated chain are being shut out. If we can get a better mechanism for getting them into the chain, that is something we will have to put into practice. One of the key themes I want to get across within the Department of Heritage is the idea that access to things of quality, including access to classic films, is something which ought to be for the many, not just for the few. This applies across social classes and across the geography of the country.

V: In the area of TV, what would you have changed in the Broadcasting Act?

CS: The first thing wrong with the Broadcasting Act is that, when all’s said and done, it is responsible for the absurdity of some franchises being won for a pound, and others being won for several millions. More importantly, it relegates quality to secondary status as a consideration. That seems to me to be a very foolish way of going about allocating important broadcasting franchises. There’s a lot about the Act that leaves much to be desired but I think that this was the major failing. There are now, of course, a whole series of issues emerging that weren’t thought of at the time. The Act gives no real recognition to the new explosion of multimedia forms. It does not engage with what should happen about the fact that the digital terrestrial spectrum is on the verge of becoming available. It fumbles around the creation of a Broadcasting Standard Council, and n what you do about complaints and consumer mechanisms. The Act, as we now know, has also created a very lopsided arrangement for Channel 4 funding.

V: Do you see any tension between the new inn which Channel 4 is financed and the channel’s remit?

CS: I suppose I get a little worried about the number of American imports which Channel 4 is coming to rely on, especially for some of its most popular programmes. I don’t want to tell the channel to stop buying Roseanne or Cheers or similar programmes, but I think it needs to start being a little bit careful about the balance between imported and home-grown material. I think the new arrangement whereby Channel 4 is funded by advertising which it controls is probably sensible but it’s the required payment which it must give to the ITV companies which gives rise to a particular concern. Michael Grade’s argument, and it is entirely legitimate, is that if he were able to keep more of the funds which at the moment he has to pass over to ITV, he would be able to invest more in film production.

V: Do you think the remit Channel 4 still has is relevant now?

CS: Oh, very much so. I think it is very important – especially with Channel 5 coming on screen – that Channel 4 is expected to make programmes for minority interests, to do the more dangerous material, the less immediately popular. It seems to me absolutely essential that the remit is retained.

V: Do you think that it’s fulfilling that remit now?

CS: The initial years of Channel 4 were an enormous success story. I think perhaps it has got a little set in its ways now; it needs a fresh injection of radicalism, although it’s got that in bits and pieces.

V: If you were Minister for Heritage, would you yourself appoint the governors of the BBC?

CS: Well, it’s the government as a whole which appoints the governors but, clearly, the Department of National Heritage is the lead department in this. One of the things I’ve proposed is that any appointment of governors should be subject to ratification by the Select Committee on Heritage, after the holding of hearings and interviewing of nominees – as happens, for example, in the United States Congress. I would also like to see the governors making an annual report to the Select Committee on their work as governors and be questioned on it. Finally, what I would say is that we need to be looking for a far more representative range of governors, drawing nominees in a rather less cherry-picking fashion that happens at the moment.

V: As a potential minister, do you feel in yourself ‘yes, I’ve got room to manoeuvre’ or is it a case of ‘we are now so severely constrained that all we can achieve is that famous inch of difference’?

CS: Well, I think it’s certainly possible to achieve more than the famous inch. What I think a government can do is to say: ‘Look, there are some things which are fundamentally important, such as quality and diversity, and we are going to make sure that we end up with those principles enshrined.’ I’m not pretending that any of this is going to be a walkover, but I think that we can certainly make progress because I want to see diverse, lively, good-quality, world-class media in this country... a whole variety of different types and different ownerships, and I think it can be achieved.

Chris Smith Interview: Vertigo Says

1. Tax concessions are the form of aid currently most favoured by the big players in the British film industry, most acceptable to the Americans and least likely to be blocked by the Treasury. But would they be a cost-effective way of promoting British production?

If the Irish scheme is taken as a model, films with minimal British input would be eligible on the same terms as wholly British productions. Some conditions to do with the proportion of the budget spent in Britain/Europe or on British/European labour seem likely, but none that could not be met by films essentially financed, conceived and managed from abroad. Like the British levy abolished in 1985, the Irish tax concessions are designed to stimulate the local film economy and generate employment, not to promote any particular kind of production or employment. Aid of this kind may, incidentally, improve opportunities for local film-makers to realise their own projects but, equally, it may not.

The Irish case is misleading if it is used to suggest that tax concessions revitalise national cinema. For the much talked of fiscal arrangements are only part of the picture. Through the Irish Film Board the state also provides investment funds specifically for Irish cinema and without these there would certainly have been fewer distinctively Irish productions to qualify for the tax concessions. The Board was allocated about £1m in 1993 and £2m in 1994. A similar level of funding per head of population in Britain would amount to £15m and £30m. British Screen at present has £2m.

In Britain, US investment increased after the introduction of the levy and, at the beginning of the 60s, this investment did help directors like Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz to make films they wanted to make. At that time, however, the investment funds available through the National Film Finance Corporation were more equivalent to those of the present Irish Film Board, and the NFFC had helped such directors to make their names and prove the market potential of their films before the Americans backed them.

So, does the Labour Party plan to increase substantially the funds available for investment in British films? If not, will tax concessions prove little more than a subsidy to the international entertainment giants?

2. It is encouraging that Chris Smith takes seriously the problem of monopoly in distribution and exhibition, but why does he dismiss the GATT argument? The French are not so defeatist. During the last GATT round they were successful in maintaining provisions which allow states to intervene in the market in favour of their own cultural industries. This is allowable under the European Media law and corresponds to the principle of subsidiary which places cultural policy in the hands of individual states. Why is Smith apparently not examining how these concessions might be used in Britain to secure better exhibition for British films?

3. We are glad Chris Smith recognises that ‘the independent smaller-scale sort of film production is important partly for its own sake’. It is a pity he found it necessary to say ‘partly’ and to hurry on to the idea that this kind of production leads to bigger things.

One of the main reasons that we do not have a more lively and varied film culture is that a substantial section of the British industry and most politicians and officials share a hierarchical image whereby big-budget American production is at the top, low-budget non-American at the bottom, and a film career is all about creeping up the hierarchy. The result is policies which are not designed to develop different kinds of production but to service one kind. Film-makers are not aiming for Hollywood; nor do all spectators always opt to see Hollywood films; nor is a film’s success a simple product of the size of its budget, as expensive flops and low-budget hits constantly demonstrate. Policies should treat different kinds of production as valid in their own right, leaving individuals to decide what ‘moving on’ means for them.