Edinburgh International Book Festival chief pledges to offer antidote to ‘toxic, brutal and angry’ social media

Nick Barley unveils line-up for 40th anniversary event
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The outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival has pledged his final event will offer an antidote to the “anger, brutality and toxicity” of social media.

Nick Barley said he was aiming for the 40th-anniversary edition of the festival to show there was a “good way to have public discussion” without the need to set up “intellectual fights”.

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Mr Barley said the event would be trying to protect its writers by “creating the right mood” for the festival, which has deliberately programmed participants from different ends of the political spectrum to appear in events together.

He pledged to ensure the festival, which has already sold out an event with Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, would allow discussion and dialogue to happen in a “safe way”.

In an interview with The Scotsman ahead of the festival’s launch, Mr Barley admitted the attack on author Salman Rushdie in New York just before last year’s book festival opened in Edinburgh had a “big impact” on its audiences.

Mr Barley launched the festival’s programme days after a leading Scottish literary organisation that champions freedom of expression raised concerns over the “atmosphere” in Scotland, which had seen writers and events singled out and targeted for boycotts of work and performance.

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Scottish PEN issued a statement suggesting the perpetrators were using “implied or express threats” to force the cancellation of events, and used such tactics to “avoid the discomfort of engaging in disagreement”.

Mr Barley admitted this year’s festival had been programmed and planned against a backdrop of “considerable political turmoil”.

He said: “The approach we wanted to take this year was to try to emphasise the joy and fun of festivals at a time when the world is very divided and social media is increasingly bitter. We want to provide an antidote to the worst excesses of social media, where people can relax, enjoy themselves and maybe disagree, but not in a way where people virtually want to lift up their fists and fight.

“I’ve been doing this job for 14 years now and I know that when people come to these festivals, they want to understand the world and they want to understand themselves.

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"That doesn’t mean being put into a corner and being told ‘you’re wrong’ by someone in another corner. It’s about listening to each other and understanding. We’re not going to change the world for the better unless we can help change people’s minds. It involves listening as well as platforming.”

Director Nick Barley is overseeing his final Edinburgh International Book Festival programme. Picture: Robin MairDirector Nick Barley is overseeing his final Edinburgh International Book Festival programme. Picture: Robin Mair
Director Nick Barley is overseeing his final Edinburgh International Book Festival programme. Picture: Robin Mair

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon will be speaking at a celebration of 75-year-old Rushdie, who survived an attempt on his life. The event will be held on the final day of the festival, with Ms Sturgeon also interviewing the New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton, the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize.

Her successor as First Minister, Humza Yousaf, will be interviewing Kenyan-born writer and barrister Hashi Mohamed, who arrived in Britain as a child refugee. Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and independence campaigner Lesley Riddoch will be exploring the political landscape in Scotland and looking at potential futures for the country in their event, while former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson will be in conversation with Labour MP Wes Streeting.

Mr Barley said: “Social media has been brutal for lots and lots of people, not just writers, who feel really bruised by the toxicity and anger it generates. We’re trying to be a kind of antidote to that environment. We want to remind people that there is a good way to have public discussion, and there is a productive and constructive way for us to disagree with each other.

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"We don’t want to only exist in an echo chamber where everything we hear is what we agree with. We want to hear different people’s views, but we also want to hear them in an atmosphere which is productive.

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her successor, Humza Yousaf, will both be appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Andy BuchananFormer First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her successor, Humza Yousaf, will both be appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Andy Buchanan
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her successor, Humza Yousaf, will both be appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Andy Buchanan

“What we’re interested in is thoughtful, carefully-moderated discussion between people. We’re going to be really exploring ideas and asking people to really think.”

This year’s festival will also include an event with veteran BBC war correspondent Fergal Keane, discussing the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Aoife Moore, who will be publishing a book on Sinn Féin this year, and Jan Carson, who grew up in a Protestant neighbourhood in East Belfast.

Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will discuss the crime novel she has written with author Ragnar Jónasson, while Olesya Khromeychuk and Serhiy Zhadan will be among the writers appearing in the festival’s Ukrainian strand.

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Six other Booker Prize winners will be appearing in this year’s festival, including James Kelman, the first Scottish writer to claim the title, Shehan Karunatilaka, Bernardine Evaristo, Ben Okri, Anne Enright and Ian McEwan.

Mr Barley added: "I want to create a festival where discussion and dialogue can happen in a safe way. We’re not setting up a festival where we’re asking people to come in and have intellectual fights.

“We’re asking people to come along to the festival and listen to each other in a spirit of community, communion and getting together in the right frame of mood. We’re trying to protect everybody by creating the right mood for the festival.”

Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale will be appearing in conversation with independence campaigner and jouralist Lesley Riddoch at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale will be appearing in conversation with independence campaigner and jouralist Lesley Riddoch at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale will be appearing in conversation with independence campaigner and jouralist Lesley Riddoch at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Alice Oseman, the creator of the coming-of-age graphic novel series Heartstopper, Schitt’s Creek screenwriter Monica Heisey, trailblazing women’s football star Rose Reilly and tennis coach Judy Murray will be appearing in special events.

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Alan Warner, Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh, Chris Brookmyre, Jenni Fagan, Ali Smith, Doug Johnstone, Damian Barr, Liz Lochhead, Kirsty Logan, Alexander McCall Smith, Denise Mina and Jackie Kay are among the big-name Scottish writers in the programme.

The festival will also be using its Scottish Government Festivals Expo funding to support appearances by 40 emerging writers in its 40th-anniversary year. Home-grown authors include Arusa Quereshi, Heather Parry, Martin Macinnes, Graeme Armstrong and climate justice activist Mikaela Loach.

Also appearing will be comics Sara Pascoe, Josie Long, Ruby Wax and Rob Delaney, visual artists David Shrigley and Jeremy Deller, and singer-songwriter Karine Polwart.

The August event will be the third and final book festival staged at Edinburgh College of Art before a permanent move to a new Edinburgh University’s “Futures Institute” being created nearby, at the site of the city’s former royal infirmary.