The Belfast Media Festival: into the hive…
As a morbid consequence of teaching Media Studies I am sometimes required to rub shoulders with people from the ‘media industries’. In fact, I have been told by senior colleagues that it is part of my job remit to engage with the industry. And I’ve made it clear that I will happily oblige, as long as I can do it with a baseball bat and a stick of gelignite. In this part of the world, that’s a threat which carries a bit of weight. As a consequence I am rarely left alone in a room with a visiting TV exec or film producer, and I know for a fact that the people who sit on those government quangos charged with promoting closer ties between higher education and industry are always hurried quietly past my open office door least the beast awaken within.
You see, it is a common misconception that all Media Studies academics are in love with the media; and that if they weren’t gainfully employed teaching your children how to watch television they’d be happily unemployed at home, overdosing on DVD box-sets of cult US TV dramas. Not me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not averse to a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Wire, but by and large I tend to find most mainstream media output absolutely fucking insufferable.
So what the fuck was I doing at the Belfast Media Festival on Thursday last (7 Oct 2010), surrounded by the sort of media-types I’d usually cross a runway to avoid? Well, I was standing in the corner of the BBC’s Blackstaff studios like a grumpy wallflower, nursing a glass of wine and a grudge, that’s what I was doing.
Sorry, that’s an evasive answer, I know. I suppose I was there because I was curious: the sort of ghoulish curiosity that made otherwise respectable Victorians stare impertinently at ‘freak-shows’. But it was, nevertheless, fascinating listening to the keynote addresses, conversations and ‘breakout sessions’ that took place throughout the day, even if I felt like the intrepid hero of a sci-fi B-movie who’d stumbled upon the ‘the hive’.
A number of themes emerged during the day and a few surprising facts. The media and creative industries in Northern Ireland employ more people than local agriculture – almost 10, 000. Before I take that statistic at face value I’d like to know what exactly constitutes a ‘job in the media’? Would making tea at the BBC qualify? Also, a huge percentage of that 10,000 will be working casually, on temporary contracts or a part-time basis. And the media is notorious for exploiting young hopefuls by asking them to work for no pay at all, in order to gain experience and improve their CVs. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive statistic and gives some credence to an assertion that was made frequently throughout the day that the media and creative industries are well placed to play a key role in the economic rejuvenation of Northern Ireland.
However, it seems that one of the most serious road blocks on the way to turning Belfast into a ‘digital city’ and a ‘hub’ with a ‘cluster’ is the ‘skills deficit’ in the area. Typically, the proposed solution is closer ties between higher education and industry, which looks fine on paper, but what this effectively translates into is that higher education should do the training.
Regulars to this blog will know that such an assumption is a red rag to my bull. Higher education faces massive cuts and has been under-funded for decades. Growing student numbers has not been matched by investment, so how in the present climate does the media industry expect HE to train anybody. This is pure Lewis Carroll-esque thinking.
But as I sat there listening to this shit, a question formed in my head: if the media sector is confronted with a skills deficit that is undermining its growth, why doesn’t it train its own personnel? And why is it so careless with its existing skills-base, leaving many workers languishing on temporary and part-time contracts?
I never got to put the question. I suspect that they chose to ignore the denim-clad sulk at the back.
Thankfully I wasn’t the only disheveled grump in attendance…
I think I discovered at the Belfast Media Festival why so much of what is produced by the media is absolutely fucking insufferable.
Our media is run by people who can talk endless about the ‘digital future’ and the gorgeous new technology through which that digital future will be produced and consumed, but they have less to say about what they’ll actually do with all this stuff. What will there be to watch, play, listen to? The stuff that will ‘go on’ the new digital forms is referred to vaguely as ‘content’, an amorphous substance, which it is the responsibility of ‘creatives’ to produce. As far as I can glean, these ‘creatives’ are kept in cages, where they lay the golden ‘content’ eggs that their media masters harvest for profit. It’s a soulless business but it keeps us plebes distracted.