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David Puttnam: Brexit must not end our star role on world’s screens

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27 January, 2017

David Puttnam: Brexit must not end our star role on world’s screens

OUR screen industries, like the broader creative industries, have been among the great economic success stories of the past two decades, so it becomes imperative that we do everything in our power to minimise any harm that might arise from the Government’s decision to leave the EU single market.

My first concern is the so-called ‘country of origin principle’. It sounds intimidatingly technical but in truth it is very simple and is driven by the fact that internet and satellite TV signals cross national borders. 

The country of origin principle allows broadcasters to transmit across the entire EU, provided they comply with the rules of the country in which they originate. It is an excellent example of the way in which sensible EU regulation can reduce red tape and not add to it. By common consent, the UK is Europe’s most vibrant broadcasting hub, thanks to our attractive and successful regulatory regime.

According to the Commercial Broadcasters Association, some 1,100 television channels are based here in the UK – around three times as many as in our closest EU rival, France. Of these, up to 55 per cent are non-domestic channels, broadcasting from the UK to other countries, meaning that international channels are key to the UK’s competitive advantage.

Literally thousands of jobs are at stake here. A significant portion of the 12,000 people who work in the multi-channel sector are employed at the European or international headquarters of media groups located here in Britain. Indeed, the number of international channels based in this country has been rising by around 17 per cent every year.

The screen sector, supported by the regulator Ofcom, strongly believes that the country of origin principle must continue to operate in the UK after Brexit, so that media companies based here do not feel compelled to move their operations to other European countries. 

Not only could that result in a loss of skilled jobs and of significant and hard-won investment, the repercussions could be far greater than that. Needless to say, continuing as before will require the agreement of the remaining 27 member states, all of which would love to grab this asset. To retain it will not be easy and will require particularly skilful negotiation.

I also want to focus on a vital but rapidly growing subsector, the visual effects and animation business. This relatively new sector has an annual turnover of £2.25bn and employs in excess of 25,000 people. This all came about because in the late 1960s, a migrant named Stanley Kubrick came to London to make his film 2001: A Space ​Odyssey. There was no suitable special effects business for his purposes so he had to invent one. That film’s success attracted the makers of the first Star Wars film – and the rest is history.

Over the past few years, as a result of continuing investment in technology, which in turn attracted creative talent from all over the world, we have emerged as the global leaders in a rapidly growing business. In the visual effects category at last year’s Oscars, five of the six nominees, including the eventual winner, were British. 

We employ the very best talent from around the world, regardless of nationality, and in very large numbers. Of the total workforce in the sector, depending on their grade, between 31 and 35 per cent are EU nationals, and a further 12 per cent are from non-EU countries.

In our largest companies, the figures are even starker, ranging between 41 and 45 per cent from the EU alone. Even these percentages increase, topping 50 per cent, when you focus on ultra-high-end jobs in 3D and virtual reality. Are we seriously going to jeopardise a pre-eminence that has taken 50 years to build by requiring up to half the workforce to leave? 

Here is a flat-out plea to Ministers. As well as the economics, there is a huge moral issue at stake here. Let us be clear: we, Britain, caused this rift. Europe is the injured party. In such a situation surely we should seek to retain a little of the moral high ground by clearly and unequivocally guaranteeing the right to stay to those hundreds of thousands of hard-working, taxpaying, economically active people who add so much to the vibrancy of London in particular and the nation in general.

At present we appear to be subjecting them to some form of prisoner exchange programme, treating them as high-stakes bargaining chips. Surely as a nation we are better than that? Surely we should generously embrace them in the hope that Europe will see the good sense of doing likewise, which I suggest it unquestionably will? In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister said “we will continue to attract the brightest and the best”, ensuring that immigration continues to bring benefits in addressing skills shortages where they exist. Here is her golden opportunity, without delay, to put her words into action. 

David Puttnam 


Edited from HOL debate on Brexit: Creative Industries - 19th January

Read the full debate here

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