Rebecca Ferguson has been vocal about her mistreatment in the music business. Now she’s working with Creative UK and others to make the creative industries safer for everyone.
After British soul singer Rebecca Ferguson came second on the X-Factor in 2010, it looked from the outside like the world was at her feet. Four top-ten albums followed in the next six years, as well as sell-out tours and collaborations with the likes of John Legend and Lionel Richie. But privately she was going through hell. She found herself trapped, bullied, and exploited, she says, with other people “controlling your money, when you eat, even who you date and who your friends are.”
“I knew that by speaking out about this I could potentially be ending my career,” she says now. “But I thought, you have to do it anyway. There’s no way you can stay silent about this.” After sharing her experiences on Twitter and becoming more vocal after the COVID-19 lockdowns gave her additional time to reflect, she started talks with the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). “I said there’s a real issue with the creative industries in this country. What are you doing to help? And they listened.”
The DCMS asked Creative UK to convene a series of industry roundtables, beginning in the summer of 2021. This working group, chaired by our Chief Executive, Caroline Norbury, MBE went beyond the music industry, assembling representatives from film and TV, advertising, games, theatre, and fashion as well as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and key unions.
The fact that Ferguson spoke up about her mistreatment may have helped catalyse this activity, but studies show that her experiences within the entertainment industry were not isolated incidents of abuse. More than half of all workers in film and TV report being bullied at work—twice the rate of the general workforce—and 48% of musicians have experienced workplace sexual harassment. There are initiatives that offer support, like UK Theatre/SOLT’s Theatre Helpline, the BFI’s Principles, UKie’s Raise the Game for the games industry and the Musician’s Union support service Safe Space. There are also gaps that people can fall through, particularly freelancers, which the Creative UK-led working group is keen to fill
The working group aims to prevent bullying, harassment, and discrimination from arising through visible codes of conduct and training; to protect those who have experienced these abuses, ensuring they can access independent advice and support; and monitoring the long-term impact of initiatives, so that progress can be sustained. Organisations including the BFI, BAFTA, UK Music, The Advertising Association, the Film & TV Charity, the British Fashion Council, BPI, Society of London Theatre, UKie and the entertainment unions BECTU, Equity and the MU are all leading action in their own sectors to drive forward change.
TIMES UP UK, a non-profit which advocates for safe and fair working environments, is an active member of the working group. They are spearheading a proposal for an independent body to improve accountability across the creative industries that could help those who don’t have unions or HR departments to turn to.
“The fact that people from all the creative industries have sat round a table and said, ‘Let’s tackle this issue,” Ferguson says; “it’s historic. Everyone on the committee should be really proud. It could really change the creative industries for everyone, and make a lot of people feel a lot safer. It’s definitely having an impact already. People are listening.”
She says that the “#MeToo” movement, which went global after sexual-abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein started emerging in 2017, “was definitely inspiring,” and fortified her resolve to speak out about her own mistreatment in the music industry. “There was a realisation that no one is too powerful [to cover up misconduct forever]. Eventually it will come out. Music will have that moment; it’s having that moment now.”
Ferguson herself is dedicated to being part of this struggle. “I’m adamant that the youth and the people coming up don’t have the same experiences that I had,” she says. “I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to advocating for change and making sure that the industry is safe. I’ve already achieved all my goals. You only get one life, and you may as well use it to help the next generation. I don’t want them having to go to work scared, or thinking about being attacked, or bullied, or harassed. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Caroline Norbury, Chief Executive of Creative UK, says that the elimination of bullying and harassment is a key priority for the sector and is heartened to see how the industry is coming together to take action in this space. However, she warns that there is “no silver bullet”. “What we’re trying to do here is make long-lasting cultural change – this isn’t something we can do overnight. Practitioners, executives, artists, and managers have to be involved at every level. Systemic change comes through transforming our behaviours, ensuring visibility about expected codes of conduct, being rigorous about embedding those behaviours and monitoring our effectiveness. No one should feel frightened, bullied or harassed at work and my sense is that the creative industries are wholly committed to making the changes that are necessary.”
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