FEU: Open letter to editors and the Government on threats to arts journalism

22 August 2019

As the Edinburgh Festival Fringe draws to a close, the Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU) which represents 141,000 workers in the arts and media industry is deeply concerned about the threats to arts journalism and its impact on the UK’s creative industries.

Having a properly-funded arts media is vital to supporting theatre, film and TV productions, ensuring that we celebrate the UK as a centre for the creative industries and to encourage people to get involved in the arts either as writers, directors, producers, performers, behind the scenes workers, patrons and audience members. All these roles help bring the magic of theatre, TV and film to life, as Government figures from 2018 show the creative industries are worth more than £100 billion to the UK economy.

The recent job losses of high-profile critics from the arts pages at the Guardian and the London Evening Standard highlight the issue. The Cairncross review of the press revealed that the number of “full-time frontline” journalists working in the UK has fallen from 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000 today. While it is difficult to assess whether arts journalists have been disproportionately hit by these cuts, those working as critics know only too well that getting paid work is very difficult to find.

As this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, one of the world’s biggest and buzziest art events with more than 4,000 shows, draws to a close on Sunday 25 August, figures from The List magazine show that 5134 reviews, collated from the eight main national and arts titles in 2012, dropped to 3,169 during 2017’s festival month. Just before this year’s Fringe the Scotsman planned to cut its coverage in half until venues stepped in with last-minute sponsorship.

A controversial website edfringreviews.com which was to charge companies £50 for a “professionally written” review of their production dropped its plans. A spokeswoman for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society said it did not “condone paying for reviews and would not advise participants to do this”. Similar schemes in the USA are said to have undermined the credibility of critics. But if critics can’t earn money from reviewing from traditional newspapers and arts websites, then they will be forced to take part in similar schemes.

With fewer critics on the ground, only the shows with big names and the sure-fire hits will be covered. But surely the whole point of the Fringe is to discover the names of the future? The League of Gentlemen, Johnny Vegas, Stephen Fry, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Hart, Steve Coogan, Enda Walsh and many more were spotted in their shows in Edinburgh.

The FEU urges newspaper and website editors to recognise the valuable contribution of the arts industry. By being more responsive to its success and giving the arts more funding and prominence, they will reach new audiences and increase readership, which can only be a win-win.  The media thrives on celebrity stories, but where will the stars of the future be found if we cannot read about up-and-coming actors, writers and directors? While the government trumpets the success of the creative sector, successive cuts to arts organisations and councils are putting the arts in peril.  Meanwhile the arts are increasingly socially elite, with only those who can afford to work for nothing getting a break. Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan must open up a discussion with the media – perhaps as part of her department’s response to the Cairncross review – about its investment in the coverage of the arts and new media models that report the arts and pay journalists.

The letter was signed by the FEU which comprises the unions NUJ, Bectu, Equity, Musicians’ Union and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.

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