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Safety signals and security guards: when did Australian writers’ festivals become so fraught?

<span>‘Sometimes views are expressed with passion – but why are we so frightened of that?’ says Adelaide writers’ week director Louise Adler.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Beveridge</span>
‘Sometimes views are expressed with passion – but why are we so frightened of that?’ says Adelaide writers’ week director Louise Adler.Photograph: Andrew Beveridge

Earlier this week, moderators at Perth writers’ weekend were issued a memo with an ominous subject heading: “Facilitator safety tips”.

“Some of you will be aware of discussions around Perth Festival Writers’ Weekend and may have some concerns about the potential for disruption at the event,” the email began. “As the facilitators, we want to give you agency over your panels and the ability to manage them … these tips will help ensure the comfort and safety of everyone.”

Related: Perth festival 2024: a voyeuristic work where the public becomes the show – but not all are in on the joke

Devised by the festival in collaboration with Writing WA and the State Library of Western Australia, the plan recommended identifying “off-limits” topics with panellists in advance, forgoing audience Q&As if they risked becoming too inflammatory, and pre-arranging physical signals that would allow panellists to communicate their discomfort.

Two designated protest areas would be set up outside the venue, and security staff would be able to step in if needed; “escalation procedures in case of a disruption” would be sent later in the week.

The missive ahead of the event, which is on now, was delivered in “a mutual spirit of safety, inclusivity, respect, courtesy and tolerance”, and to create “a safe space [for panellists] to share their voices”. It is also a sign of the times.

‘Event organisers have a duty of care’

Writers’ festivals have always married literary discussion with topical issues, bringing authors and commentators together to discuss not just their work but the world around it. Occasional flare-ups and stoushes are to be expected – but as debates over the Middle East crisis continue to filter through to all areas of public life, it has had a particularly divisive effect on Australia’s arts industry, where pre-emptive risk management appears to be a new development.

Related: Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz gallery drops artist Mike Parr after political piece on Israel-Gaza war

In a statement to the Guardian, Perth festival’s artistic director, Iain Grandage, and Writing WA’s chief executive, William Yeoman, said the festival had the responsibility to ensure the safety, comfort and enjoyment of all participants and staff.

“All event organisers have a duty to care for their attenders and it is standard, prudent practice for them to consider a wide range of measures in their event management plans,” the statement said.

For Perth writers’ weekend, the new safety measures haven’t come out of nowhere. Last week an open letter to the festival was signed by hundreds of artists, musicians and academics, calling on the festival and Writing WA to issue a public apology to the Palestinian community over the decision to platform headliner Deborah Conway, an avowed Zionist, in its literature and ideas program.

In January, Perth festival was already responding to complaints by unspecified groups over diversity and representation in the program.

“While programming decisions were made prior to these conflicts breaking out … we are bringing more authors to the writers’ weekend,” Yeoman wrote in an email in January. First Nations artist Mabel Gibson and three writers of Arabic heritage were subsequently added to the lineup.

‘We have to be able to hear other people’

Controversy at Australian writers’ festivals is nothing new. In 2016, Yassmin Abdel-Magied famously walked out of Lionel Schriver’s keynote address at the Brisbane writers’ festival, and accused the We Need to Talk About Kevin author of delivering “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension”.

In 2018, the Sydney writer’s festival became the scene of an international scandal, after American-Dominican novelist Junot Díaz was publicly accused of sexual misconduct by a member of the audience, American writer Zinzi Clemmons. Diaz cancelled his scheduled appearances at the festival, and has denied the allegations.

Ahead of last year’s Adelaide writer’s week, a storm brewed over the inclusion of Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American writer who had described Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a “Nazi-promoting Zionist” on Twitter; and Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd, whose poetry the Anti-Defamation League criticised as antisemitic. Sponsors pulled out, as did three Ukrainian authors, and Adler faced down the media, arguing against the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and arguing for the freedom of discussion and debate.

“None of this is simple,” she told the Guardian at the time. “People are free to deeply object.”

A fortnight away from this year’s festival, Adler has found herself once more in the firing line after The Australian’s literary editor Caroline Overington described the 2024 program as being “positively stuffed with guests whose views on the conflict in the Middle East are frothingly anti-Israel”.

“There are five writers talking about the history of the Middle East, five out of 202 writers, and not one of them would agree with the other,” Adler told the Guardian this week. “If that’s called a program packed with anti-Israel individuals, then [The Australian] and I are obviously working with different abacuses.”

Adler says there will be no new safety measures put in place for this year’s writer’s week.

“There’s always been a civil, courteous and polite exchange of views. Yes, sometimes views are expressed with passion – but why are we so frightened of that?” she says.

“We have to be able to hear other people, that’s what I think is important. And passion or commitment to one’s opinion is perfectly legitimate.”

“The moderators have the power of the microphone, and the right to switch it off during Q&As if an audience member becomes offensive, racist or derogatory,” she says.

“It can be done with dignity and authority.”

‘The more you mediate this, the less you fulfil the brief’

Before he was editor of the Monthly, Michael Williams was artistic director of Sydney writers’ festival, and head programmer for the Wheeler Centre. He’s a frequent moderator of panels and talks at writers’ festivals, which he sees as platforms for public discourse where conflicts of opinion are inevitable.

Related:‘Poetic’, ‘fearless’, ‘a creative triumph’: the best Australian books out in February

“If you don’t want to be in a place where there’s public protests or anxiety expressed about government policy, or questions being asked about human rights, then you probably shouldn’t be putting on a public ideas festival right now, because that’s what’s going to happen,” he says.

“Only the narrowest and most prescriptive program avoids being about the world at large.”

Williams says he understands Perth festival’s anxiety over maintaining a safe and respectful environment for all participants. “But short of making sure that people avoid deliberately hurting or vilifying others, going beyond that comes across as overthinking,” he says.

Related:The Guardian view on festivals and the future: bound together by the power of a shared vision | Editorial

“The value of a writers’ festival is that it is live – people who have thought deeply about the ideas coming together to talk in an organic way with each other and with readers. And the more you mediate this – the more you try and filter that through a set of pre-scripted things or preconditions – the less it’s fulfilling the brief of what you want a good live literary event to be.”

Perth festival’s statement underlined that its plan was to encourage, not limit, lively and free discussion, “in a mutual spirit of safety, inclusivity, respect and courtesy”.

“Our intention, as always, is to equip artists with the most comfortable circumstances possible to be themselves.”

Talks festivals need to strike a balance “between tone policing and content policing”, Williams says – and the increasingly complicated role played by organisational boards should not be underestimated either.

“Cultural boards now have lots of pressures on them from sponsors and donors and participants alike, and they’re trying to achieve that balance,” he says.

“It’s an invidious task.”

  • Perth writers’ weekend runs until Sunday 25 February. Adelaide writers’ week runs 2–7 March