Festival chief: I was bullied over indyref debate

SIR Jonathan Mills, the former director of the Edinburgh International Festival, has said he felt bullied by critics who demanded he tackle the Scottish independence debate.
Mills said that he was trying to avoid agit-prop productions. Picture: Jane BarlowMills said that he was trying to avoid agit-prop productions. Picture: Jane Barlow
Mills said that he was trying to avoid agit-prop productions. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Australian impresario has told how he felt he was being put under pressure to stage pro- independence works in his final programme last summer.

Speaking on the issue for the first time since last year’s referendum, Sir Jonathan said he was concerned that the festival would have been in danger of putting on “agit-prop” and promoting propaganda had he climbed down.

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A number of leading figures in the cultural movement for independence - including Scots Makar Liz Lochhead, artist Alasdair Gray, playwright David Greig, actor David Hayman and author Alan Bissett - were among those to take him to task.

Sir Jonathan, who was speaking during an Edinburgh Festival freedom of speech debate, came under fire two years ago for refusing to tackle the independence debate in the 2014 festival, held just weeks before the country went to the polls.

At the time of his original declaration, Sir Jonathan said he wanted to ensure the event was kept as a “politically neutral space for artists.” He instead announced that the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the staging of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow would be inspiring his main themes.

However months after the storm of controversy broke, it emerged that the EIF would be staging three epic new plays set in 16th century Scotland, when the independent country was ruled by three Stewart Kings.

The Scottish Government provided direct funding to the tune of £200,000 for Rona Munro’s plays, which were co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

During the freedom of speech debate this week, Sir Jonathan - who was knighted two years ago - was asked whether it was possible for an event like the EIF to offer a truly politically neutral space. He insisted that he had never imposed any kind of ban on anything related to the independence debate.

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He added: “I didn’t actually say that I wouldn’t have it, I just said that I wouldn’t be forced into doing it. There is a very great difference. I felt the conversations before the (2014) programme had been released about what should be in it and being asked to determine it according to a very particular kind of politics, that was very much about the notion of the arts supporting an independence movement, were problematic.

“Most of the things that we do here are highly politically charged. But if that’s all they are then that’s a worry for me.

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“My concern is that if all that art is is political then it becomes agit-prop. In a world where we acknowledge that art is political, we have to defend it in being other things as well. It would be very interesting for us to start to interpret in a very specific, very directed way those kinds of things. Then you start to get into the area of propaganda.”