Liz Lochhead, hang your head in shame

Scene from The City

COMMENT: High-profile artists are entitled to their opinions. To use their power and influence to politically censor small productions in an open arts festival is nothing short of disgraceful.

Tomorrow is the official start of the Edinburgh Fringe. Normally, I would make myself busy with recommendations of what plays to see. There would be the usual debates about whether the fringe is too expensive, too dominated by big name comedians, or too dominated by the super-venues. But this year, all of this has been eclipsed with one of the most disgraceful acts to ever occur at the Edinburgh Fringe: political censorship is back.

Early this year, I wrote about an attempt at censorship of a webcomic called Jesus and Mo, and a particularly nasty campaign against some individuals who said they didn’t find it offensive. That campaign thankfully failed, but at the time I asked how long it would be before we have another Behtzi? The answer, it turns out, is six months. Only this time the target for a hate mob, Incubator Theatre’s show The City, isn’t in the least bit offensive – their act is parody film noir with hip hop.

No, their only crime is that they are partly funded by an arts council, just like, um, thousands of other theatre companies who need to make ends meet. The difference that that they are Israelis, and therefore have to get their funding from Israel’s the ministry of culture, and this tenuous link to the war in Gaza is enough to call for a boycott. Except a boycott isn’t enough. People choose to see or not see shows for all sorts of reasons, and that’s fine at a fringe, but the people against this show want to deprive everyone else of this choice. So they held a big demonstration against Underbelly’s launch event, with disruption to public order, and Underbelly capitulated and pulled the show. For the first time in years, a group has been censored for political reasons.

For the record, my own view on Israel and Gaza is that I have I have little support for either the Israeli government or Hamas, and I also believe that a cultural boycott will, if anything, entrench the Israeli Government’s current policy, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is freedom of speech, and festivals fringes such as Edinburgh are meant to be pinnacles of free expression. Short of extremes such as incitement to violence, everyone has a right to put on a show regardless of any political views.

This doesn’t mean that you can express views with impunity. Everyone, from the lowest-rung actors to the highest-profile artists are entitled to conflicting views, and if you really object to a show, you can urge people not to see it, or hold a peaceful protest outside urging people not to go. But as soon as you force people not to see it, you instantly put yourself in the wrong. And this is before we consider that it’s not even their views that are the target, but the views of people they are vaguely linked with. Senator McCarthy would be proud.

But the thing that disgusts me the most is who’s behind this. I wasn’t surprised by the usual rent-a-mob who form the rank and file of these kind of demonstrations – I’ve seen them in action before and I expect no better from their behaviour. I was a little disappointed that Underbelly gave in – I would have hoped that they, the Festival Fringe Society and the Police would do whatever it takes to ensure that freedom of expression is protected from threats to public order – but no, my deepest outrage it reserved from the people leading this campaign, People from the arts world. People would should know better.

Ar the forefront is Liz Lochhead, the national poet of Scotland – in the payroll of the Scottish Government who in turn is in the payroll of the UK Treasury, the same UK whose foreign policy to Israel she also opposed and yet strangely doesn’t find it necessary to return any of the public money she received. Sure, being in the payroll of the UK government doesn’t mean you are bound by their foreign policy, but neither are Incubator Theatre bound by Israeli foreign policy. What’s the difference?

I find it particularly contemptuous that Lochhead says the boycott is “a painful one for all liberals”. How dare she call herself a liberal. I cannot think of any definition of liberalism that endorsing gagging people with opposing views in order to get your way. Fringe theatre groups are amongst the weakest groups in the arts world, and for one the strongest and most powerful individuals in art to shut them down, she should hang her head in shame.

Okay, here’s an idea. Who’s up for a cultural boycott of Liz Lochhead? I don’t let rent-a-mob action, but surely this is something the whole world of fringe theatre must unite against. Having secured one scalp, these people are going to be after more, and with political links as flimsy as one just used as their excuses, frankly no-one is safe. Damaging her reputation and career that way won’t be nice, but it’ll be no worse than what she’s already done to others.

But I will make one important concession – I don’t want anyone to be forced to boycott her. I hope that we can persuade as many people as possible to rise up as one, but for anyone who agrees with her position, or is not sufficiently bothered to boycott her work – that’s your choice, I don’t make your choices for you. This boycott should be done by campaigning and persuasion alone. I don’t want anyone trying to get her events cancelled through threats of violence.

There, you see, Lochhead, I believe giving people the freedom to choose whether to see you, whatever I may think of you. That is what the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe is all about. It’s such a pity you don’t believe in that any more.

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