Forget Fishing, Britain’s Digital Sector Is Now 9,000% Bigger

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What’s more important to Britain’s economy, fishing or video games?

Listen to the BBC’s flagship radio news show, the Today program, and you’re sure to hear bucket loads about Britain’s fishing industry.

Whether it’s fishers complaining about EU rules or fishing lobbyists arguing that the sector must be protected in the case of hard Brexit, something certainly smells a little fishy.

In fact, with all the airtime given to the fishing industry, one might assume that plaice, pollock and mackerel comprise a core pillar of the British economy.

Unfortunately, that’s codswallop.

While British fishing boats did land £980 million ($1.23 billion) worth of fish in 2017, employing some 11,700 fishers and contributing £1.4 billion to the overall economy, these figures pale in comparison to vast size of the U.K.’s digital sector—a fact rarely reflected in shows like Today or indeed in the Houses of Parliament.

 For example, the development of video games in the U.K. now rivals fishing for gross value added to the British economy.

 In November the Department For Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) revealed that video games as an industry are now worth over £1 billion to the U.K. economy, with the industry itself claiming to directly employ 20,430 people—nearly double that of the fishing industry.

Thanks to thriving companies like Rebellion, creators of the Sniper Elite series, and Rockstar Games, makers of Red Dead Redemption 2, the video games sector is blossoming.

Gross Value Added to the British Economy in 2017 according to DCMS. *Fishing figures from 2017 UK Fishing Industry report to Parliament on 6 December.

Gross Value Added to the British Economy in 2017 according to DCMS. *Fishing figures from 2017 UK Fishing Industry report to Parliament on 6 December.Oliver Smith

(Note: These figures are lower than the £3.86 billion that the Entertainment Retailers Association attributed to video games sector last week, at the ERA’s figures include games developed abroad but sold in the U.K.)

That’s not to mention other digital and tech sectors, like the manufacturing of electronics and computers—hardly something that Britain is known for—quietly adding £3.7 billion to the economy. Or how about computer programming, a £48.3 billion industry, or the telecoms infrastructure that makes all of these industries possible, worth £32.5 billion to the economy.

In fact, DCMS believes the U.K.’s entire digital, culture, media and sports sectors are now worth £268 billion, with digital alone responsible for nearly half of that, at £130 billion.

Meanwhile, you’ll rarely if ever hear about video games development in the same sentence as Brexit—nor software development, telecoms or even computer manufacturing.

This isn’t a complaint about fishing—the sector has done extraordinarily well at punching above its weight, partly because it’s the sole industry supporting many struggling coastal villages with their beautiful harbors, and also as it captures our imagination as a quintessentially proud British industry. 

These tangible and intangible reasons have led to a situation where MPs in Parliament last year made 1,130 references to the fishing industry, including 17 fishing-specific debates, and 12 written statements about fishing.

Video games or the gaming sector, a sector which nearly rivals fishing in size and employs double the number of people, was referenced just 59 times, with a single video gaming-specific debate and just one written statement.

Chi Onwurah, Labour's Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation.

Chi Onwurah, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation.Chi Onwurah MP.

“The huge disparity in Parliamentary mentions versus sector size certainly reflects a relative lack of awareness of the size and importance of the digital economy amongst Parliamentarians, and how that relates to prosperity now and in the future,” Chi Onwurah MP, the Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, told Forbes.

Onwurah, who trained as a chartered electrical engineer and was previously Head of Telecoms Technology at industry regulator Ofcom, added that the fishing industry has always played an active role “in our communities, imagination, landscape and history.”

“Too often leaders in the digital economy act and talk as if there were no such thing as society, as if they have no duties or responsibilities towards citizens and communities.

“So it is true that the digital industry needs to be better represented but it also needs to represent itself better as an active citizen in our society.”

Onwurah is right. The embarrassing disparity says more about the failings of Britain’s digital sector—video games and all—to adequately speak up and represent itself better in politics and in society.

But at least in 2019 let’s hope the fishy business of talking more about tuna than tech comes to an end.

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