Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dutch Creative Media Tour visits Salford but will they listen?

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is heading a two-day trade delegation to the UK at the moment. On Monday he dismissed recent comments in the Dutch press that the Netherlands is becoming very focussed on itself. The NRC Newspaper recently carried comments from several ambassadors in the Hague who drew similar conclusions.

"I think you are far too busy with yourselves," Germany’s ambassador Heinz-Peter Behr said, but adding  that Dutch eurosceptism could lead to an improvement in the way Europe functions.

"The Dutch may go abroad on holiday but the country itself is increasingly becoming closed to the rest of the world,’ said British ambassador to the Netherlands, Paul Arkwright. ‘And that can hurt its international reputation".

At a speech in Birmingham on Monday, Rutte pointed out that 70% of the Netherlands' wealth is earned from export services. The Dutch embassy in London chimed in with the statement that economic ties between the two countries are strong; annual Dutch exports to the UK amounts to €30bn, while the Dutch invest €94bn in the UK every year. The UK itself invests €60bn in the Netherlands annually. As such, the Netherlands and the UK are each other's second largest investors. Big numbers, although they can't have much to do with trade between the two countries in the creative sectors.

Comparison Complete

I've been watching the revitalisation and growth of the creative industries in London and Manchester, comparing it with Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Hilversum. The results compiled for clients of the Critical Distance Knowledge network make for fascinating reading. Both countries are banging gongs about their successes in an sector which is actually poorly defined and varies widely per country.

In the case of the Netherlands, the successes are mainly in architectural design and fashion, for the Netherlands TV business is going through very tough times. Dutch TV company Endemol, for instance, currently has debts of EUR 2.8 billion and is trying to secure a debt-for-equity swap with a buyer that would reduce the debt to around EUR500 million.

At the moment, Hilversum as a city seems to be going through a kind of creative collapse, as a result of a combination of draconian cuts to public service broadcasting combined with demands to consolidate the vast over complicated infrastructure. Part of the challenge is that the city itself hasn't set very high ambitions for itself. Many commercial production companies have already seen the writing on the wall and headed off for Amsterdam or further afield.

On Tuesday, Rutte will pay a brief visit to a joint Dutch-UK symposium taking place at the Lowry centre in Salford (above), just opposite the new BBC production complex. It's also home to several tech start-up groups that I have been tracking as well as commercial production in studios next door to the BBC.

I am very curious to know what the Dutch PM, and members of the delegation will take back with them. The Dutch are good at hosting media related conferences (IBC is the largest broadcast exhibition on the continent) but whereas the facilities are top-notch, the UK is 2-3 years ahead in thinking up and creating cross-media productions. The Dutch seem to be good in designing entertainment shows, but the UK scores much better in world class documentaries, transmedia and factual storytelling.

The embassies in both countries seem to put a lot of faith into the so called Apeldoorn dialogue, a closed meeting of young business leaders from both countries which alternates between the UK and the Netherlands. The next British-Dutch Dialogue Conference will be in Manchester next March. It will focus on the untapped potential of higher education institutions as incubators for future innovation and economic growth.

I personally trust both countries will publicize the outcome of these public-financed discussions, because just making a YouTube video about the event does very little to explain the significance of the dialogue to the rest of us. The video had 196 views when I last checked, which makes it a rather expensive way of sharing an idea. 

I also hope that Rutte and his delegation will take away ideas about how public broadcasting can become more accountable to the public, along the lines of the BBC Trust. For, judging by the Dutch government's actions to, in effect, reduce the number of Dutch public TV channels from 4 to 3 and muffling all foreign broadcasting efforts to a whisper, the UK can probably share more business ideas with the Netherlands, than the other way round.

As others have said, The Netherlands rapidly needs to open out to the world again. The news this morning that the 3rd quarter figures for the Dutch economy performed much worse than expected, shrinking by 0.3 %, should remove any shadow of a doubt that things need to be rethought. If not, the economy won't just be even worse next year, it could move into terminal decline. As a colleague in India said last month. The Media industry is like the sun. It's rising in the East and setting in the West.

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