‘A desecration of literature’: the row tearing Britain’s books festivals apart

amazon, ‘a desecration of literature’: the row tearing britain’s books festivals apart

'The stakes couldn't be higher. Hay Festival has been subject to a coordinated attack' - Getty

Last week, in the days leading up to the Hay Literary Festival – the UK’s most prestigious literary event which, each May since 1987, has brought together high-profile speakers from across the world – a crisis was unfolding.

Those scheduled to appear had received an email from an organisation called Fossil Free Books, urging them to protest against the festival over its sponsorship deal with the Edinburgh-based investment firm Baillie Gifford. The email asked them to denounce Baillie Gifford – which invests two per cent of its portfolio in the petrochemical industry and which, FFB argue, also profits from “Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide” – or read aloud a poem by a Palestinian author, or withdraw from Hay entirely.

Speakers were also encouraged to sign a letter of protest, while a second email gave details of several pro-Palestinian demonstrations scheduled to take place at the festival, with details on how speakers could support them. Various publicists and publishers found the tone of this email “quite threatening”. There was unease about safety concerns, and that authors would find themselves caught up in the protests.

Panic began to set in. Within a few days, speakers including singer Charlotte Church, stand-up comedian Nish Kumar, Labour MP Dawn Butler and politician Shami Chakrabarti had announced they were withdrawing from Hay. Fearing that the situation would escalate and that more authors might drop out, the festival organisers felt they had “no choice” but to suspend their sponsorship deal with Baillie Gifford, the leading sponsor of literary events in the UK. Last Friday, they announced the end of the eight-year-old partnership.

amazon, ‘a desecration of literature’: the row tearing britain’s books festivals apart

Charlotte Church, who pulled out of Hay festival, has previously rallied in support of Gaza - Getty

In financial terms, the loss of Baillie Gifford to Hay isn’t so significant: the arrangement was only worth around £100,000. Hay, which has an annual turnover of around £5 million, generates most of its income from ticket sales – although the amount lost this year in refunded ticket sales for cancelled events far exceeds Baillie Gifford’s contribution. However, a source close to Hay told me: “The stakes couldn’t be higher. Hay Festival has been subject to a coordinated attack whose only result will be less money for the charity with serious ramifications across the cultural sector. Organisers are preparing for a robust response and are adamant a situation like this will not be allowed to develop again.”

The situation has left the literary world reeling. Baillie Gifford sponsor seven further literary festivals across the country, including Cambridge and Cheltenham, plus the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – the UK’s leading non-fiction prize. Fossil Free Books plan to target all the festivals still to take place this summer, but Edinburgh International Book Festival (taking place in August) has today followed Hay and announced that it will cut ties with Baillie Gifford. Most insiders now expect Baillie Gifford to announce that it is withdrawing its sponsorship from all UK literary events.

Fossil Free Books was set up in 2023 by the activist and writer Mikaela Loach, the novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler and the guerrilla gardening writer Ellen Miles, after Greta Thunberg pulled out of Edinburgh International Book Festival over its sponsorship deal with Baillie Gifford. It now comprises “hundreds of active members” across the publishing industry, although it gives no details of its members on its website.

“We were trying to exert pressure on the asset manager to divest, rather than on the festival itself,” says the author and economist Grace Blakeley, who also decided to withdraw from Hay (and serves as an unofficial spokesperson for Fossil Free Books), although she acknowledges that the outcome has directly affected Hay, rather than Baillie Gifford. Either way, many high-profile authors agree with Fossil Free Books’s stance: Sally Rooney and Zadie Smith are among 600 to have signed an open letter in support of the cause.

Yet others are alarmed. Speaking at Hay on Thursday on the subject of control being exerted over the arts, the novelist Howard Jacobson said: “The idea that anybody can come along and say ‘you can’t read this and you can’t read that’... is a desecration. It’s a desecration of books, it’s a desecration of the idea of literature.” He also described feeling “sorry for the people who organise this festival, because they have been subjected to the most cruel and objectionable pressure.”

Toby Mundy, who runs the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, previously known as the Samuel Johnson Prize – the £50,000 prize is run entirely independently from Baillie Gifford, who merely provide “a substantial sum” to finance it – says: “I was dismayed and disappointed that [Hay] chose to make this decision. Baillie Gifford play an indispensable role in the cultural life of this country. They fund public spaces in the form of book prizes and literary festivals where issues can be debated openly, without seeking to control in any way what happens in those spaces.

“That Hay have cut ties with Baillie Gifford makes the many smaller festivals also dependent on their funding, who are already badly struggling this year, much more vulnerable.”

amazon, ‘a desecration of literature’: the row tearing britain’s books festivals apart

Author Howard Jacobson described the pressure on Hay festival organisers as 'cruel' - Jay Williams

“People with very strong views feel they have the right to impose them on other people. It puts institutions like Hay in a very difficult position,” says the novelist Joan Smith, who last appeared at Hay in 2019. “It’s authoritarian. It worries me that individual authors will find themselves under pressure to sign their statement for fear that, if they don’t, people will think they are a climate-change denier. Yet it’s very hard to see how the call to cut ties with Baillie Gifford will have the slightest influence on climate change. The Middle East, in particular, is far too complex a situation to be solved by these sorts of single-issue campaigns.”

As for John Vaillant, whose novel Fire Weather won the Baillie Gifford Prize last year, he said on Thursday that “the jury had pretty impeccable credentials, [and they chose] Fire Weather, which is a really scathing indictment of petro-capitalism and resource colonialism.” He added: “I come from a background of mediation. And I feel there’s more value in being... in the room at Baillie Gifford where they are reading the book and it’s challenging them.”

Environmental campaigns against arts sector sponsors aren’t new. Last year, protestors put pressure on the British Museum to end its corporate partnership with BP. But the Israel-Palestine conflict has stoked tensions further. Earlier this month, 163 acts reportedly withdrew from Brighton’s annual Great Escape Festival in protest over the sponsor, Barclays Bank, which – the organisation Bands Boycott Barclays claim – invests in companies that supply arms to Israel. Barclays also sponsor Latitude, Download and the Isle of Wight Festival. A Barclays spokesperson said the protestors “mistook” what the bank does. “Clients supply defence products to Nato and other allies including Ukraine, and are an important contributor to our security in the UK.”

amazon, ‘a desecration of literature’: the row tearing britain’s books festivals apart

There have been protests against Baillie Gifford in the past; here by Extinction Rebellion in 2020 - Alamy

Baillie Gifford argue that the accusations levied against their investments are misleading. They point out that their two per cent investment in the petrochemical industry is far below the industry average, which is five to 11 per cent. Mundy, who as a member of the Baillie Gifford Prize board regularly carries out due-diligence checks, suggests that Baillie Gifford also “invest much more than that in companies working in clean energy”.

Moreover, Baillie Gifford argue that, while they do invest in Amazon and the technology company Nvidia, who both have business dealings in Israel, “practically every consumer in the developed world is using the services of these companies”. They also acknowledge that they have “small investments” in Airbnb, Booking.com and Cemex, identified by Fossil Fuel Books as having business interests in the Occupied Territories, but say that they are “committed to responsibly analysing and engaging with the companies” in which they invest. “We are a private business managing other people’s money, not our own,” they add. “Our clients set the parameters and determine what to exclude or divest. We are not able to make exclusions of that nature based on our own ethical judgements, or in response to pressure from outside groups.”

On this, Blakeley, a former economics commentator for The New Statesman, disagrees. “Climate activists around the world have been pushing for divestment from their pension funds and their universities’ endowment funds, particularly in the US, and plenty of companies have already begun to divest,” she argues.

“There are now many ethical foundations, co-ops and corporations who commit themselves to very high standards when it comes to these things, and which are listed on websites such as Fossilfreefunds.org. It’s an absolutely booming market. There’s not a dearth of money out there, particularly when it comes to the arts.”

amazon, ‘a desecration of literature’: the row tearing britain’s books festivals apart

'The situation has left the literary world reeling': Hay festival has been rocked by a boycott - Clara Molden

Those who have spent years fundraising for literary festivals simply disagree. Ethical funding models do exist: the Booker Prize has, since 2019, been run by the San Francisco-based charitable foundation Crankstart. Yet Andrew Kelly, former director of the recently defunct arts organisation Bristol Ideas, says it has never been harder to raise money for the arts. “It’s easy to say that another sponsor can be found for one that has been dropped, but there aren’t many companies out there, especially for literature projects.”

Mundy argues that campaigns such as Fossil Fuel Books simply make it harder to find donors. “Because why should anyone do it? There is not a queue of people waiting to sponsor pluralistic spaces where ideas can be openly discussed.”

It comes down to this: those who say the literary scene can survive without sponsorship from companies such as Baillie Gifford, and those who say it can’t. “We believe literary festivals and events that do not accept funding from institutions complicit in human-rights abuses is [sic] possible and necessary,” said Fossil Fuel Books in a statement on Thursday night. “We love our literary festivals dearly, and it is a privilege to share work with readers, but this cannot come at the expense of the human rights of Palestinians and communities harmed by fossil-fuel companies.”

Yet other festivals are clearly reliant on corporate funding. At Henley, which takes place in September, venues include a 500-seater Baillie Gifford Marquee. At Edinburgh, Baillie Gifford have run a free events programme, which has covered transport costs and book giveaways for primary- and secondary-school children.

Both Smith and Mundy agree that state funding is not the way forward. “No one thinks taxpayers’ money should be used for literary festivals,” says Smith. But the alternative is bleak. As Mundy says: “If festivals feel forced to sever ties with Baillie Gifford, it’s hard to see how any of them can continue to exist.”

Additional reporting by Anita Singh

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