Arts industry report asks: where are all the working-class people?

Arts industry report asks: where are all the working-class people?

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Working-class people continue to be hugely under-represented in the arts, and the people at the top – mostly well-paid, middle-class white men – are least likely to see it. This conclusion was reached in a new report published today, billed as the first sociological study on social mobility in the cultural industries.

The study used data from interviews with 237 people who work in the creative industries to shine light on a problem that the report’s authors said is a longstanding one.

The percentage of people working in publishing with working-class origins was given as 12.6%. In film, TV and radio it was 12.4%, and in music, performing and visual arts, 18.2%. “Aside from crafts, no creative occupation comes close to having a third of its workforce from working-class origins, which is the average for the population as a whole,” the report said.

The research shows that the people most attached to the idea of the arts being a meritocracy – that the best jobs go to those with the most talent – were white middle-class men who occupied the highest-paid jobs and who were most able to bring about change.

One of the paper’s authors, Dave O’Brien, said the sector was “quite socially closed” and “dominated by middle-class white people”. He said the sector was well aware of the problems exposed in the report, which raised questions about why things did not change.

“If it knows there are these social problems, why isn’t it doing better? Why is it much more like an elite profession rather than being open and meritocratic? The sector almost congratulates itself as being the good guys.” O’Brien said it was time for people to ask: “Are we the bad guys?”

The prevalence of unpaid work in the arts reinforces social inequality, the report says. But there are also more subtle barriers to entry, including “the homogeneous values, attitudes and tastes of people working in cultural occupations”. That includes the fact that cultural workers tend to be socially exclusive and are friends with other creatives and less likely to know someone like a bus driver or a factory worker.

The Panic report, a detailed follow-up to research published in 2015, has been released by Create London and Arts Emergency, a charity set up to challenge the “old boys’ network” in the creative industries.

Jez Butterworth, Paris Lees, Joely Richardson, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham during the Working-Class Heroes event.



Jez Butterworth, Paris Lees, Joely Richardson, Tom Courtenay and Rita Tushingham during the Working-Class Heroes event. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

The report follows a separate weekend of discussions and screenings at the British Film Institute exploring what it means to be working class in film and TV.

The keynote interview was with Maxine Peake, who spoke of the prejudice she had regularly experienced from people in the industry. Many, for example, assumed that people from the north would be working class: “There is only one class in the north, and that’s working class, and if you’re a woman you will be slightly brassy and a bit blowzy; if you’re a man you’re either aggressive or you’re angsty and poetic. That is the entire north in a nutshell.”

Peake revealed she had been under pressure to sound more posh in the first series of the BBC One barrister drama Silk,. “I went to Rada … and I have still got this accent, so it is a fallacy.”

Many speakers talked of the problems in being the gatekeepers, the people at the top. Paul Roseby, chief executive of the National Youth Theatre, said over his decade in the job he had encountered the same Oxbridge-educated people at the BBC in the same jobs. “There does seem to be an iron curtain around opportunity at some of our national institutions; we hear the phrase ‘hard to reach’. Well, you are not hard to reach – we are,” he said.

Other issues that came up at the BFI’s “working-class heroes” event were reductions in drama teaching in schools and cuts to youth services.

Many actors stressed that the profession has always been incredibly hard to get into and that most do not succeed.

Lesley Manville, Oscar-nominated this year for her role in The Phantom Thread, said the struggle could be a good thing. “For young people starting now, there is this pressure that it’s all got to come together very quickly. When I started, nobody ever dreamed of making films or going to America; it just didn’t happen. You just did the work. There’s so much now about young people being, ‘Are you on social media, are you this are you that, are you in this magazine?’ Get rid of that, it’s nonsense. It’s only about the work.”

The Labour party last year held its own inquiry into inequality in the cultural sector, and published a report, Acting Up, which concluded that the word “class” was often missing from the debate about access and diversity.



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