The economic impact of culture is a weak justification for public subsidy, says the BBC Economics Editor.

Robert Peston at the Warwick Commission debate

Graeme Braidwood

Given that Tesco employs 300k people and has a turnover of £42.4bn, while the cultural sector employs 111k with a turnover of £12.4bn, the cultural sector must look for better arguments than economic ones if it wants to justify its public subsidy said economist and journalist Robert Peston, responding to the first Warwick Commission provocation ‘Are cuts in funding the biggest threat to culture?’ In the first of a series of debates taking place as part of the Warwick Commission evidence-gathering on the Future of Cultural Value, Peston kick-started the debate by proposing that even if culture made zero contribution to the economy it would still be of value, and argued in favour of more “spiritual” arguments for supporting the arts, whilst recognising that “saying the arts are intrinsically good may not get us anywhere”. More fruitful, he suggested, might be arguments that emphasise the “parasitic” relationship between the financially successful commercial arts sector and the subsidised sector, and that people around the world warm to the UK’s artistic work, enhancing national identity and making it easier for Britain’s businesses to trade overseas. He went on to describe the funding of culture as a “regressive subsidy”, being spent on white middle class “people like us”, and said he was struck that the sector is still talking about a “paternalistic model” of funding, 20 years after it died out in all other parts of life. A free archive of subsidised work could be a way forward, he suggested, with publicly funded organisations making their work free, including through digital distribution after they have recouped their costs.

Liz Hill