Fringe Society urged to take tougher stance over protest threat

Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy said the society will defend the rights of performers to have a voice. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh Festival Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy said the society will defend the rights of performers to have a voice. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has been urged to take a tougher stance over its long-standing “open access” principle and rights of freedom of expression in the face of protests about shows.

Its governing body faced calls for much more to be done to stand up for the rights of under-fire artists and companies at its annual meeting.New chief executive Shona McCarthy faced claims the Fringe had been too “bland” in its response to a campaign against a celebration of Israeli culture by pro-Palestine activists.

She was urged to ensure a more “pro-active” approach was taken in future.

Police and security guards were called in to ensure the International Shalom Festival – which had been branded a “provocative event” – went ahead two years after the cancellation of two Israeli productions at the Fringe.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood, one of the festival’s leading promoters, said the Fringe had to work harder to ensure performers were not intimidated by those with the loudest voices. Mr Wood, who was forced to cancel an Israeli hip hop opera two years ago in the face of protests, warned that protests were only likely to intensify in future.

Andrew Anderson, a member of the public who attended the Fringe AGM, said: “The suppression and censorship two years ago was a shameful blot on the Fringe’s history.

“We need to make it clear that people can come here from any country in the world, whatever we make of their government. The Fringe will need to be much more pro-active in getting that message across.”

Mr Wood, a society board member, said: “This will be an ongoing issue and it’s only going to get more intense. As a board and a society we need to come to an opinion as to what defend means. We had the same policy in 2014. It didn’t completely work. To have open access we need to defend it against people who may shout louder.”

Ms McCarthy said: “The Fringe is an open access festival. We will always be an open access festival. We are a non-political organisation. We will always defend the right of any company or performer that wants to have a voice on the Fringe, unless of course they are behaving illegally. We would also always defend the right of people to protest. That’s position won’t change.”

Tim O’Shea, chair of the board, said it was taking the issue “immensely seriously.”

He added: “We are unambiguously committed to freedom of expression.”