Cultural Work and Young Workers – Who cares?

On December 3rd the Cardiff Media Summit was held in the capital. This was an initiative of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, undertaken to promote collaborative reflection on the state of the broadcasting and media sector in Wales. It was jointly sponsored by BBC Wales and the University of South Wales. The latter had a stand near the entrance with books on display which had been written by university staff. I immediately found these titles of interest but, in fact, none were for sale on the spot yet what better buying public than scores of media professionals?

I ordered several books and received one a few days ago: Cultural Work and Higher Education by Catriona Noonan of USW and Daniel Ashton of Bath Spa University. The book, through its 11 contributions, examines ‘the experiences and realities of working within a number of creative sectors and addresses how higher education can both enable students to pursue and critically examine work in the cultural industries.’


Catriona Noonan’s contribution interviews first-year media undergraduates about their aspirations and concerns and sets itself three main questions:

  1. How is creative labour understood by these young people, particularly in relation to the rewards and challenges which such work offers?
  2. How do young people conceptualize their own professional identities with respect to current and future employment in the creative industries?
  3. What are some of the factors influencing this conceptualization?

I find it very valuable to have this access to these young people’s perceptions, particularly as they reflect on being in Wales. It is my industry that they are speaking about and their views on it help me to consider my own. What is being done to ensure that the industry is aware of these views? How is the industry responding to, and indeed reaching out to, these very young potential workers?

Last year I read a piece in Cardiff University’s student paper which shocked me. It was a well-written account of work experience by an undergraduate on two tv series, one of which was about and made in Wales. He was treated appallingly badly but he regarded this as the norm, the norm he should expect if he managed to get into the industry as a post-grad. He seemed to regard the ability to endure ‘inhuman’ (his term) working conditions as the price that has to be paid for a creative career.

I immediately emailed and phoned various people on the editorial team to ask if I could write to refute this portrait of ‘the norm’. No one answered any of my approaches. How tragic, that this is one young person’s impression of the creative industries: exciting, ruthlessly macho, unendurable in the long term.

I have just finished a five-year stint as a professional tutor in documentary-making at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. I was teaching on an MA while working as a tv producer and as a writer. My concern with links between university and the industry led me to organise several initiatives to bridge those worlds. Much more could be done by academics to make sure that their own work, their own insights and critiques reach the workers within the industry. We need that material to understand our work and its effects more thoroughly.

Does the University of South Wales have a mechanism by which it feeds its academic work regularly and effectively into the industry in Wales – I mean at the level of ideas rather than via academic/industry partnerships such as Creative Exchange Wales-Network Do Welsh universities in general work to get their studies read and debated by the industry? The difficulties faced by Cyfrwng recently are challenging but it is a challenge that the creative industries in Wales should help to face. I’d like to see it become the norm that creative workers expected to be asked to take an interest in the analysis of their work for their own sake, as something nurturing for them.

At the summit I was on a panel addressing the ‘democratic deficit’ in Wales and I made a point about young media workers – those already launched on a career, in their twenties and early thirties. How well are their views on the industry harnessed or canvassed by older workers? I wonder whether we are doing enough to foster the kind of commitment to policy formation which will support and regulate the industry. Are we fostering the kind of media worker who will care about the audience and the overall service as much as about the product? This is particularly important in a country such as Wales.

I noticed that there was little sense among Dr Noonan’s interviewees of public service within the creative industries. That’s how it is but why and are we happy about that?Whose responsibility is any of this? Certainly not that of one sector alone.

That’s why the follow-up meeting to the Cardiff Media Summit is important: an opportunity to collaborate across the cultural work and higher education areas. 15th January. Details from the IWA.

Next blog: Daniel Ashton’s chapter on: Industry Practitioners in Higher Education: Values, Identities and Cultural Work.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Work and Young Workers – Who cares?

  1. Thanks Angela for taking the time to read our volume and for raising some very important questions.

    I fully agree with your statement that ‘it become the norm that creative workers [are] expected to be asked to take an interest in the analysis of their work for their own sake, as something nurturing for them.’ For me the university system also has a key part to play in helping future professionals critically consider their role and the barriers that exist in the current labour structures. For me making sure that when these young people enter the industry and eventually rise up the career ladder, the experience of labour is more fully on their agenda. The current labour structures are, I believe, unsustainable as too many very talented young people, women and minority groups are not getting the chance to push the creativity of the industry forward. I appreciate that it is not only gradates who can nurture this agenda but it seems that within creative degrees the complex questions of labour, equality and the emotional toll of creative work should be given a prominent place in our curriculum.

    The appearance (or not) of public service within the student’s narratives was noticeable and when I pushed a little, somewhat inevitably, this was linked directly to the BBC. Two things emerged: first, many of the students did aspire to work for the BBC but often because it was noted as a ‘steady job’ compared to freelancing for instance. Given the current cuts and restructuring of the BBC it is difficult to see this perception lasting, or at least the reality matching the perception. What was more subtle in their narratives was that Cardiff Bay was seen as a legitimate place to begin a career because of the investment and ‘buzz’– good news for Wales. In particular Roath Lock was seen as giving these students something tangible to direct their skills and networking activities. This obviously raises questions about the access given to these kinds of spaces (e.g. one of the arguments for the new BBC Wales News HQ to be in town and for its architectural design was to demonstrate both transparency but also links to audience – will this extend to new creative professionals). It also raises questions about centralization. Many of the students interviewed here are from areas that once upon a time had a theatre, local radio and local newspaper. Many of these are now gone (or scaled back significantly) and so an interesting urban/rural divide opened up in the minds of the young people I spoke to. How do we ensure opportunities for all young people across Wales?

    1. I thought of your points when reading Ofcom’s Report Public Service Content in a Connected Society

      It makes some interesting points about significant differences between how young and old people perceive PSB. The Public Service element has become less visible to young people.

      1.14 Viewers still value the PSB purposes highly and support the PSB characteristics. However, our research shows that in a world of increasing choice, the PSBs are losing some of their distinctiveness. This is particularly true among younger and tech-savvy consumers, who no longer appear to distinguish between PSB and non-PSB channels. They believe that a wide range of organisations are producing content delivering the PSB purposes and characteristics. Rather than PSB or non-PSB content they distinguish between “good” and “bad” content.

      1.15 Additionally, for younger people in particular, the PSB portfolio channels, which are not legally classified as PSB channels, are viewed as equally important as the main channels.

      These observations should make us ask what young people think broadcasting is for. If their awareness of the Public Service element is much less sharp than earlier generations, what are the implications, both for content and for the industry as a place of work?
      What, if anything, should universities and broadcasters do about these attitudes?
      By what criteria are young people judging “good” and “bad”?

      The Report continues:

      1.27 Our audience research suggests that older audiences in the nations feel that more could be done to ensure programmes reflect their local and national identities. This is contrasted by younger adults in the nations who say it is more important for PSB channels to represent diversity at the level of different groups and communities present throughout the UK, such as specific ethnicities, religions, socio-economic groups and sexual orientations. As the constitutional situation in the UK evolves so audience needs may also change over time.

      This is a fascinating double angle on the issue of representation. It suggests to me that Wales is saying that it wants better representation both of itself and of itself in relation to the rest of the UK, and it is an interesting indicator of the ‘constitutional situation’.

      The IWA, via the Wales Media Policy Group, submitted a response to the consultation document on the 26th February. Of which more later.

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