THE EDINBURGH International Book Festival director has said there will be an “impartial” arena for political debate at the event – but no space for a “pugilistic boxing match”.
Nick Barley has insisted Charlotte Square Gardens will allow space for issues such as next month’s referendum, the conflict in Gaza and the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
Describing the festival as “a champion of freedom of speech”, Mr Barley said a major focus of this year’s event would involve “giving voice to writers from all over the world whose views need to be heard”.
Mr Barley – who is at the helm of his fifth event – said he was determined to create an atmosphere in which people would be “comfortable expressing their views and opinions without fear of getting shouted down”.
Much of the focus at the festival will be on the referendum, with both Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown late additions to the programme.
But Mr Barley said he had decided against having traditional debates at the festival, in the hope of having “a proper discussion rather than a pugilistic boxing match”.
The run-up to the book festival, which starts tomorrow, has also been marred by a row over the cultural boycott of government-funded Israeli performers, which has led to two productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe being scrapped amid criticism of the campaign from culture secretary Fiona Hyslop.
Sir Jonathan Mills, outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, which has been targeted in the past for booking Israeli performers, has described the protests against artists as “regrettable.”
Many of the Scottish artists and writers in Mr Barley’s programme put their names to a letter protesting about an Israeli theatre company’s “hip hop opera” show, because the group is state-funded.
The show’s run was scrapped after just one performance, which was besieged by around 150 protesters.
A second group of student dancers from Israel were forced to pull the plug on their show after campaigners pledged to target their venue.
Mr Barley told The Scotsman: “We are an impartial festival, we programme people of all different political persuasions, and the views of the people we programme don’t necessarily reflect the views of the festival. As a festival, we have commissioned a whole series of discussions on the future of the Middle East.
“Our desire was not just to look at the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but to take it away from the intractable national discussions and try to think about the bigger picture.
“The book festival is a programmed festival and my job is to programme authors and a series of discussions reflecting the state of the world today.
“The book festival is a champion of freedom of speech. We have a whole series of events giving voice to writers who have been prevented from speaking by their governments.
“The tragedy of Gaza is at the top of our minds at the moment, but I’d prefer to focus on giving voice to writers whose views need to be heard, regardless of the political situation in their country.”
He added: “We want an atmosphere in which it is safe to express views and where all views are welcome. What we don’t want is a cosy consensus where we are pretending we all agree with each other when, of course, we don’t. We want people to be comfortable with expressing their views and opinions without fear of getting shouted down.
“This is the perfect place to discuss the referendum. As the eyes of the world focus on Scotland, the white heat of that discussion will take place here.
“Many of us have been thinking about where we stand on the referendum and we have been open to arguments. The book festival will be a place where people will start to really bring it all together.
“Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scotland and Britain are changing and an important question is not just how you are going to vote but how are Scotland and Britain going to be after the referendum. It’s a question we all need to discuss – regardless of how we’re planning to vote.”