Cultural Colonisation
The Irish Perspective (2000)

 "The creative society enables the knowledge economy to emerge - the knowledge economy as a substitute for the creative society is a disaster - it's a recipe for obsolescence and unhappiness....the time has come for active  broadcasting rather than passive, democratic rather than autocratic and working to build citizenship deep in communication rather than miserable privatized fragmented existence and misery which is what is on offer (from the multinationals)," Michael D Higgins, former Irish cultural minister.
By Keith Newman 
(notes from a speech at APRA offices plus Backch@t interview with Bill Ralston)
Michael D Higgins helped take Ireland from the 1950s period of rural agricultural based society where the economy was repressed and 55,000 people were leaving each year. He helped bring culture to the forefront of new growth industries which have revitalised the nation.

Arts, culture and language were all different government departments. He bought them together under one umbrella as the founding minister of the new culture ministry in 1993.
Mr Higgins, a poet, believes in employing people from within their respective cultural industries to take key roles in Government.  

He wrote a programme for the Irish government which protected arts investment and funding by written mandate and spent more between 1993-97 on culture than had been invested in 20 years. The creative sector in Ireland now employs close to 50,000 people. In 1993 when Coopers and Lybrand conducted an audit it was the same as the banking sector 23,800. The value of the music industry was around 250 million pounds in 1995 and is now around 400 million pounds.
When Mr Higgins left in 1997 the ministry employed 1760 people.

In January 1993 I was asked by the leader of the Labour Party to head the new ministry, because I had written the prescription of what the new department should do. It moved from being the department promotion of the Irish language employing 56 employees.

Mr Higgins had himself been a columnist for a rock paper for 10-years. He made the controversial decision of placing former rock magazine editor and musician Niall Rogers to run the Irish radio and television commission.

Stokes arrived with an afro haircut, black T-Shirt and a piece of silver hanging around his neck. The prime minister said to me at the time: 'He wouldn't have been one of our choices'."  

Niall replaced a judge in his 70s."In fact there were no less than seven judges ion charge of different institutions around the cultural space. When I left there was only one surviving judge. That caused a lot of grief because this was seen as Michael Higgins implementing his agenda. I had to consciously  defend that," he said. "I wanted practitioners who know the community associated with the debate to be in a position for a few years to drive our policy."

"I wanted people who could sweat out the deprivation and the experience of being marginalised as cultural workers or intellectual and creative people in a society that was becoming very materialist."

The big advantage of what Niall bought with him was not 40 years sitting  on the bench looking at poor people being jailed and rich  people with clever lawyers escaping  being jailed. He was in fact someone who had played guitar in a band (which one) and edited a rock paper. I suggest it took a lot more intelligence and skill to keep a rock paper going for 20-years  than it took to put on your overcoat  and go in and out of the High Court."

Niall introduced 30 per cent quota for the radio stations he had responsibility for. It was challenged by the European Union but eventually allowed because of the cultural exception. At the same time in the state sector the voluntary 25 per cent was allegedly working, depending on who was in charge at various part of the day. 

"There are community rights not just personal rights, to hear their own stories, make their own sounds, imagine their own things in particular make their own compositions. This is  not a narrow little territorial thing. 

Compositional influences on Irish music have come from artists going away to America and new influences coming back and going away again in a changed way. This was shown in the programme Bringing it All Back Home showed. The same thing has happened  in Irish dance. In fact forms that are half dead at home can go away and through bouncing off other cultures be revived.

"The people around the radio and television stations were just shysters in it for the money and operating on the basic principals that if it  took half a million to make a good Irish programme or drama you could,  for one 50th of the cost, purchase some rubbish and dump it  around you people who would consumer it like fish being fed in a bowl."
The film industry he said went from making 2-3 a year to in 1995 making 40 feature films and 40 for television release with 5000 jobs created in three and a half years.
"Here we were people around the street knowing the value of music, composition, art and film for its own sake. 

"It is necessity to have aesthetic commitment to the fore which is part  of human freedom. It shouldn't be owned, controlled and should in a way be in some kind of exile from the society in power. However the people in power do have an important contribution to make to the creative society. It became necessary to show you can create jobs through good policies in relation to music."

His interest in music was 'less with the Sony's' than trying to give  money for great recordings and distribution. This coincided with the rise of the Irish Performing Rights Organisation . "Suddenly culture was a discourse that was accepted."

He said creative people started coming out into the public space rather than coming out of the alleyways. "It's was culture's time not to be conceded to but accepted in the center of things as a crucial part of our living."

 His argument is with the narrow minded market theorists who say if you take the information society seriously the creative society would result. "Creativity is a democratic issue and that gives centrality to the cultural artist and performing artist. It was the whole point that energy is connected to an intellectual version of the way you are, that includes other people, and responsibility for this community at the center. Waves of tolerance have come about as a result of different kinds of books and music and films around the world. Then you can mobilise people against the homogeneous thrust of all (those who would) commoditise what is essentially creative."

"It is the last great colonisation without arms or armies - the colonisation of the imagination where this stuff is dumped at you right, left and center."

"You find the people who  purchased the programmes for the television stations are now in charge of the people who make programmes. The broadcasting issue comes into this,. No-one is arguing to go back to the days of Queen Victoria but if public service broadcasting is strong it'll lift the commercial side. If it is weak it'll be self commercialised.

The argument about quotas is about diversity. "Has, new music expressing different things not the right to emerge? It's like saying music as it is played on the radio will be like the shop front at McDonalds, the same all over the world. You have to have quotas and should even have quotes for new music."

"Why should we have to turn any person in Ireland into an international star to get recognition at home and on radio play time or New Zealand resolve to do the same. Niall says small country big voice  and that's at it should be but it should  also be many countries, many voices. The quota arguments are about citizenship and democracy and activity rather than passivity."
Selected quotes
from the Backch@t interview TV1 Sunday September 5th with Bill Ralston.

Part of the achievement of Michael D Higgins was getting Irish culture accepted. "It's getting to the point people stop asking violinists for example what their real job is, the arts are no longer some vague thing on the fringe," he said.

 "The cultural industry is much more than making a galvanised bucket which is a commodity. Film, music and culture can save the economy rather than the economy being able to produce a surplus to allow culture."

"When artists and creative people could finally walk on the sunny side of the street and began to make money it was almost as if they were considered a lesser form of life and didn't have the right to occasionally shift to gin and tonics rather than pints."

The first film which came to the market during his time as cultural minister was Braveheart, the last Saving Private Ryan. "I calculated that in film once your get to a half million pound budget you have 52 skills minimum so its full of training.

"It is a brilliant industry. You need about four and a half years for a major film but a lot of the finance is stuck on annual budgets. Part of my biggest battle was getting them to think beyond a single year." During his tenure the movie industry investment went from 11.4 million pounds in 1992 to 186 million in 1995 that the industry grew to outstrip available skills and resources.

 "The government would have preferred we stuck to annual budgets but the minimum time for serious investors is three years minimum. That's why you need a minister for culture who is co-equal with the others to present the logic of the aesthetic and the economics," he said.
He expressed concerns about broadcasting saying the commercialised approach often ends up with broadcasters in 'programme provision' which replaces 'programme making'
"The right to communicate has a community component - the right of the community to hear its own story, to serve minorities and more importantly to recover a myriad of stories and imagine a whole series of things." He says the license fee allocated to a national broadcaster acknowledges that connection is wider than any pool of people and is a pillar. "The difficulty in shifting to taxation-based funding means you lose the autonomy. The day you put the funding on an annual basis and debate it in parliament to bid it up or taking it down you have affected that autonomy."
"If you want cultural diversity which makes the community creative you can fund the rich diverse tapestry as a backdrop to the creative society and from it will come marvelous things like computer graphics, animation in film and digital editing which will all mix together. If you do it the other way, and say all that culture is very vague then you  go down through financial services and come to information technology as a set of techniques with people learning to function but not understand.