Today
Sat 16 October 2021

Nadine Dorries’ appointment as Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary is said to be turbo-charging the culture war – but a new report has found the real issue facing the cultural sector is structural inequality not ‘wokery’

The appointment of Nadine Dorries as Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary has prompted accusations that the Prime Minister is seeking to dial up the Government’s ‘culture war’.

Dorries has been outspoken in the past about “wokery” and accused “left-wing snowflakes” of “killing comedy”. 

But, as right-wing politicians and elements in the media push the idea of a culture war onto the British public, the real cultural divides prevalent in British society remain untouched.

“For me, a war suggests two fairly equal sides,” says Dr Natalie Wreyford, lecturer in culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London. “But I’m not sure that’s what this is. What we’re looking at in culture today is some people having the power, and a lot of people not having any.”

Dr Wreyford is the lead researcher on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity, and author of its ‘Creative Majority’ report published this month. It found that the creative industries are dominated by “straight, able-bodied white men living in London” – with men from privileged backgrounds five times more likely to work in a creative occupation than working class women.

It also documented how just 16% of the creative workforce is from working class social origins, compared to just under one-third across the entire UK economy. This divide stretches across multiple factors including race, gender, disability, and sexuality.

Dorries is just one of eight women holding high office and one of the few working class Conservatives in a senior role. But the views of the author and former reality TV contestant on culture – and the indication that her appointment has been made to amplify the culture war – has led to concerns that she will use her position to generate conflict rather than challenge structural inequalities in the creative arts and media.

The Creative Majority report made clear that change must happen if the arts are to continue thriving. Robert Adediran – an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) consultant and a former executive director of London Music Masters – suggests that, “in music, particularly classical, there’s a sense that the art form has reached a pinnacle, that it could not possibly get any better than it already is”. He warns that this mode of thinking “is very dangerous because it robs one of the key drivers for diversity and inclusion, which is to make the art form better”.

“There isn’t the drive to bring new people in to change things and to push a more creative output or a better creative output,” he believes.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Creative Diversity’s research team hopes that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will proactively engage with the its report, exploring how the department and its officials can work to adopt its recommendations.


Systemic Barriers 

The report is organised around five guiding principles: ambition, allyship, accessibility, adaptability, and accountability. 

“For those who are not getting access to senior positions in the creative industries, it’s not because they’re lacking in their training or ability, it’s because there are barriers preventing them,” says Dr Natalie Wreyford.

She recommends a move away from seeing marginalised groups as a “problem” and suggests that the creative industries “take an intersectional and an inclusive approach, and think about all different types of difference”.

Despite more creative businesses talking about the need for inclusion, diversity statistics in the sector have appeared static in recent decades.

“We need to move on from ‘best practice’ to what we like to call ‘effective practice’” Dr Wreyford says. “For example, mentoring schemes are prevalent in all kinds of media and arts organisations, as it’s often seen as a good practice. However, what we found from looking at evidence from across all sorts of academic disciplines, is that sponsorship is actually more effective. This is where people really take a personal investment in that person, career, they introduce them to people who might be able to help them.”

The shift from mentoring to sponsorship is “more of a kind of welcoming,” she added. “It gives the sense of belonging in the industry. Changes like that are quite subtle but they make a whole wealth of difference in real practical terms.”

The rhetoric behind the culture war denies multiple people that sense of belonging, both in the workplace and society. The ‘war on woke’, which fights back against calls for social justice, risks undoing some of the positive work to welcome marginalised voices into the creative sector. 

No wonder then that Dorries’ appointment has sparked concern from the left-leaning arts world. Dr Wreyford, however, is ready to give the new minister a chance to step up.

“I want to see the new Secretary of State take a strong leadership role in making change happen,” says Dr Wreyford. “Hopefully she will become an ally.” 

A Government spokesperson said that it wants to “give people from all backgrounds opportunities to work in our fantastic creative industries” and has invested £7 million to support the creation of new, flexible apprenticeships across the creative industries. They said it is also “making changes to the scheme to remove barriers so young people can learn and earn together”.

“We’ll look at this report carefully and consider what more we can do to widen access to creative jobs,” they added.

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