Monday, 29 February 2016

Boycott or not? - John Dougherty

Hanging out in one of the hotel bars
Some of you may have read about the Think Twice campaign, asking authors to boycott the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, which starts this week. The campaign's objections are to the festival sponsor, Emirates Airline, which is owned by the government of the UAE, a government with a less than enviable record on human rights.

Now, before weighing into the debate, I guess I should declare an interest of sorts. I went to the festival last year, and had a great time.   The organisers treated us tremendously well; the other authors were fantastic company; and all in all, it was as good as a holiday. So - as per the photographic illustrations to this piece - I have some very good memories of and feelings about the festival which may well compromise my objectivity.

Meeting a hawk in the desert
I should also say that I've got no objection to a decent boycott. I haven't knowingly bought a Nestlé product in years, probably decades.

Young Bond author Steve Cole on a camel
 But my feelings about Think Twice's proposed boycott sway between undecided and uneasy, and I'm not entirely sure why. In part, at least, I think it's the idea of targeting a festival solely on the grounds of its sponsorship that troubles me.

Leaping about in the desert with Steve
& photographer Lou Abercrombie
(there with her husband,
 YA author Joe)
The thing is, there are a number of festivals whose sponsors I have serious issues with. There's the Times & Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, a festival I'm proud to have spoken at more than once, but whose main sponsor is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a man who I believe has done immense damage to political discourse in this country and who holds disproportionate influence in the corridors of power. Or the Hay Festival, sponsored by the Telegraph, whose owners are allegedly no friends of democracy.

Now, if Murdoch or the Barclays tried to censor the festivals which which they're respectively associated, I think that would almost certainly be grounds for a boycott. As far as I know, they haven't. But as far as I know, there is no reason to believe that either Emirates Airline or the government of the UAE have tried to influence festival policy, let alone impose censorship.

Lunching with Steve & illustrator
extraordinaire David Tazzymen
I really don't want to downgrade the importance of the human rights argument. But Think Twice isn't calling for a boycott of every festival held in a territory with a poor human rights record; only this one. So I suppose my question is this: should the nature of their chief sponsor mean that Emirates Airline Festival of Literature should be held responsible for the UAE government's human rights record? 

I'm not sure it should. The organisers are not connected with the government; they're simply book enthusiasts who have worked hard to get a literature festival off the ground, and who have sought sponsorship from a local company with a lot of money. And I'm not sure it seems fair to try to close down their festival as a way of protesting against the sponsor. If the boycott is successful, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will be no more. Emirates Airline, and the UAE government, will continue exactly as before.

What do you think?


John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman, is published by OUP.

His new books in 2016 will include the next two Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face titles, his first poetry collection - Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones and published by Otter-Barry Books  - and several readers for schools.


Sue Bursztynski said...

There's something ugly about "Let's all boycott..whatever." I've seen it on many occasions - and BTW, Emirates Airlines sponsor the Melbourne Cup, a bit difficult to boycott!

I've seen a big name film director refusing to have his film in a festival in which there was an Israeli entry, and a bunch of nut cases surrounding a local French bakery because there were French nuclear tests going on in the Pacific, near us! A bakery, for heaven's sake! At least in the 60s they would had done their protests at the Consulate or Embassy.

Still, I wonder how I would feel if there was an event run by people of whom I disapproved strongly?

But as you say, there are a lot of countries with human rights abuses out there. I wonder how many people are planning to boycott the World Cup?

Katherine Roberts said...

Looks like you had a great time, John! As for the boycott question, surely it has to be a personal decision? If someone is invited to X and decides not to go because their conscience won't let them, fair enough... but I fail to see how someone can order a 'mass boycott' of anything. That just doesn't make sense. If a mass boycott happens, then surely it should be made up of many people deciding independently to boycott, otherwise it is not really a boycott at all?

harimau bola said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Dougherty said...

Just testing that comments are working on this post...

Jonathan Emmett said...

Hi, John. I’ve only recently come across this post, otherwise I would have responded earlier. As one of the organisers of the Think Twice campaign, I’d like to address a few of your points.

I accept that book festivals are a commendable enterprise, my problem is with them being used to enhance the profile of an extremely unethical sponsor. You mentioned that you boycott Nestlé, so you may be aware that an author boycott put a stop to the Nestlé Teenage Book Prize before it was even launched. I’d imagine that most, if not all, of the authors that boycotted that award would accept that, generally speaking, book awards are a commendable enterprise. The Nestlé Prize was organised by Booktrust who, like the Emirates Festival organisers, are book enthusiasts working hard to promote literature and a love of reading. What the boycotting authors objected to was this commendable enterprise being exploited to generate favourable PR for an unethical company.

You mentioned that, despite your concerns about Rupert Murdoch, you would not boycott a festival sponsored by one of his papers. Neither would I, but it’s a matter of degree. Last year the The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) urged Jennifer Aniston to reconsider her decision to become the face of Emirates Airlines because of their serious concerns about the airline discriminating against women and homosexual employees. If the National Union of Journalists were voicing similar concerns about a Murdoch paper, I would certainly think twice about appearing at a festival that bore that paper’s name. And, if Amnesty and Human Rights Watch had credible evidence that Murdoch was having people imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against him, I would do the same. Despite his many faults, Murdoch is guilty of none of the above, unlike Sheik Mohammed, owner of Emirates Airline and the Literature Festival’s sole patron.

You claim that, “if the boycott is successful, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will be no more” and that you are not sure that this is fair. You may be aware that Amanda Craig has written an open letter signed by several authors (including myself) calling for an author boycott of festivals that do not pay author fees. It’s been claimed that some festivals would be no more if this boycott became widespread. This may well be the case, but there is a principle of fairness at stake here. As Joanne Harris, one of the boycott’s supporters, put it “We need to send the message out that art isn’t free, that art has a worth and needs to be paid for.” I believe that this principle of fairness is worth standing up for, even if it results in the closure of a book festival, and in my view the principles of fairness that are the focus of the Think Twice campaign are every bit as important.

Finally you claim that despite our campaign “Emirates Airline, and the UAE government, will continue exactly as before.” The principal aim of the campaign was to raise awareness of the damage Emirates and other airlines are doing to the global climate and the human rights abuses carried out by the airline’s owners. I believe that the campaign did exactly that. I think climate change is the single most urgent challenge facing our generation. Climate scientists have made it clear that the continuing growth of the aviation industry is critically undermining efforts to keep global warming beneath the 2ºC limit needed to avert climate catastrophe. The problem stems from international flights, which are not subject to national carbon budgets, and Emirates Airlines are the single biggest culprit with a carbon footprint for international flights that far exceeds their nearest rivals and is growing by the year. Perhaps you’re right and, despite the campaign, Emirates Airline will continue as before, but sitting on my hands and hoping for the best, while the situation gets graver and graver will not help either. If you can come up with a more effective way for the book community to challenge companies like Emirates, I would gladly offer you my full support.

John Dougherty said...

Hi, Jonathan. I've read your comment several times now, and you do make your case well, but for the moment, at least, I don't think we're going to agree.

I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that Sheikh Mohammed is "the festival's sole patron"; the patron is the state airline. Yes, since the UAE is a monarchy the Sheikh could be said to be the airline's owner, but as I understand it he and the government neither fund it nor interfere with its running. This to me is the key point, I think; the airline has no influence over government policy, and the state neither funds the festival - sponsorship comes from the airline's profits - nor influences the festival's programming.

I do have considerable sympathy with your position, and I think the issues you've chosen to highlight are important ones, but I'm still not convinced that targeting the festival is fair.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Hi John. I suspect we are going to disagree. I accept that there are pros in this issue, it's just that - in my personal view - they are heavily outweighed by the cons.

With respect to your point about the accuracy of my claim that Sheikh Mohammed is "the festival's sole patron”. I did mean “patron” and not “sponsor”. The festival website currently has a photo of the Sheikh on its homepage with the caption “Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.” The Sheikh is referred to as the festival’s patron throughout the site including in the message from the festival director’s here:
The Sheikh is strongly associated with the festival and gains respectability by this association.

With regards to the festival’s funding. The Emirates Airline web site clearly states that the airline is “wholly owned by the Government of Dubai” ( Dubai is an autocratic state of which Sheikh Mohammed is the ruler, which means that effectively he and his family are the government. The festival’s funding may nominally come from the airline, but that effectively means it is coming from the Dubai government.