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Cultural freedom

October 19, 2011

Political restrictions on the arts, particularly in Hungary, and extensive budget cuts are the greatest burdens facing Europe's culture scene, British MP Ben Bradshaw explained in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

The word 'culture' circled
Politicians shouldn't meddle in cultural affairs, says BradshawImage: NLshop/Fotolia

Ben Bradshaw, a British Labour politician, has been a Member of Parliament since 1997. He has also served as Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Deutsche Welle spoke with the MP following a meeting of the European Cultural Parliament in Pecs, Hungary.

Deutsche Welle: What sort of agreement did the European Cultural Parliament reach at its recent conference in Pecs?

Ben Bradshaw: There were two main findings. One, a reiteration of the importance of culture for the European project at a time when Europe faces a political and economic crisis, when it is looking for strong leadership to provide both of those things, when you have support for the European Union and its institutions at a low ebb in many European countries. There was a strong expression that culture can play a very important, uniting role. Culture is something that binds us as Europeans together.

Budapest skyline
A right-wing trend in Budapest is a concern for the artsImage: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH

Then there was a second strand, which was about the concern that is felt in a number of countries, not least in Hungary itself, about the growing tendency of governments to interfere in the artistic freedom of people in the cultural world. There have been a number of examples recently in Hungary, including the recent suspension of a well-known and popular theater director because of a number of differences with the authorities in Budapest.

This is totally unacceptable in a functioning democracy, and I think there was great concern expressed, not just by the Hungarian participants, but also by those throughout the rest of the European Union and beyond.

What can and should the European Union do to influence the situation in Hungary?

Apart from drawing more attention to this problem, of course all members of the European Union sign up to basic standards of respect for human rights and freedoms that go along with democracy and European Union membership. When the Hungarian government proposed a rather autocratic media law, there was a big backlash from the European Union and that law was amended in response to that [eds: in March 2011]. So there are roles that the European Union can play.

I hope that the European Parliament will also take this up as an issue and that individual governments and individual cultural departments in other European Union countries will also raise their concerns with the embassies and missions in those countries.

In light of the financial crisis, what do you see as the biggest threat to the cultural scene in Europe?

The biggest obvious threat to the cultural scene is the huge cuts in many countries in support for culture and the arts. Here in the United Kingdom, for example, our government is cutting support for arts and culture by 25 percent. In the Netherlands, it's even worse than that. The point I made in the debate is that this is a false economy. Culture amounts to no more than one percent of GDP in any European country.

Culture and the arts are not only absolutely essential to the health and well-being of countries, but they also generate enormous economic turnover. In the United Kingdom, our creative sectors have grown twice as fast as the economy as a whole and created twice as many jobs as the rest of the economy and will do so in the future. The message I gave to those countries which are cutting arts and culture is you are not only damaging your own cultural and artistic base but you're also damaging your economy and future growth.

Ben Bradshaw
Investing in culture is good for the economy, urged BradshawImage: AP

You mentioned countries overstepping boundaries in the arts scene. Do you see a restriction of artists' rights in other European countries?

There were certainly delegates to the Parliament who raised concerns about political interference in their countries as well. Where you have government support for the arts and culture, it's sometimes difficult to completely get rid of political interference, but you can do it. We in the UK have an "arm's length" model, where the government votes money to arts and culture, but the decisions about how that money is spent are taken by an independent arts council. We as ministers don't interfere in appointments at all.

So it's not inevitable that just because you have government or public support for the arts that you have political interference. In my view, it's much better and much healthier, both for democracy and for the arts, if politicians stay out of those sorts of decisions.

You get better art; you get riskier art. You get art that people want and enjoy.

Interview: Kate Bowen

Editor: Stuart Tiffen