Controversy as author pulls out of history festival in diversity protest

Controversy as author pulls out of history festival in diversity protest

A Twitter storm erupted last week over the lack of people of colour speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, with historian Rebecca Rideal pulling out just four days before it is due to begin today (26th June), in protest over the issue.

However, the festival director, historian James Holland, has defended the line up, telling The Bookseller he will not be “bullied” into changing the editorial content of the event over a “storm in a teacup”.

The 148 speakers at the event include 32 women and two people of colour. Speakers include former Chancellor George Osborne, and Paddy Ashdown, journalists such as Andrew Marr and Michael Buerk and authors such as Antony Beevor and Antonia Hodgson.

Rideal, who publishes titles with John Murray, announced on Twitter on Thursday (22nd June) that: “With a heavy heart, I have decided to withdraw from speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival next week.”

She went on to say: “This is in light of recent conversations about representation. I have the utmost respect for my fellow panellists. It didn't sit right with me, personally, to attend a festival where gender and BME ratios were so skewed. We need to support our black and minority ethnic historians, many of whom are trailblazers. They must get due credit. They must be visible so that the next generation of historians better reflects society.”

Pressure on other historians to withdraw from the festival following Rideal's decision had been “intense”, fellow panellist Dr Fern Ridell said on Twitter.

Ridell, the author of The Victorian Guide to Sex (Pen & Sword), said that while she respected Rideal's decision to pull out, she herself intended to continue with her attendance as part of Dan Snow’s History Hit panel with Suzannah Lipscomb, sprung from the popular podcast of the same name.

History Hit had deliberately tried to put together an “all female panel” to tackle some of the “diversity issues” at the festival, Riddell said, adding that she was “waiting to hear if they have been able to add a BAME voice to our panel, so we can discuss what's happening properly”.

“In the last 24 hrs pressure to withdraw has been intense, + I know some of you will be disappointed I'm still attending, but here's why,” she tweeted.“I believe tackling this head on, pushing these issues at festival itself, is equally as important as the stand @RebeccaRideal is taking.I have a huge amount of time for @historyhit + I know one of their USP's is promoting + encouraging diversity both in history + historians. I have a huge amount of time for @historyhit + I know one of their USP's is promoting + encouraging diversity both in history + historians.”

However, Holland, the festival’s chair and programme director, has responded angrily to the situation, calling it “frustrating”.

“People can and will say things on Twitter which they won’t say face to face” he told The Bookseller. “120 characters is not enough for a very nuanced debate. The thing is, we are in Wiltshire and our core audience is local people. We have tried to attract a more metropolitan audience from London and I wish they would come.

“The most important thing for us is that we are talking about history and the past. If they happen to be Indian, Muslim, or Black African it would be great but it doesn’t always work like that. The more people we can inspire about history the better. We have inner city schools coming to the festival which the teachers respond that it really inspires the children, uptake in history has improved and I think that is more important than causing controversy about race relations.

“We have had lots of people of colour coming to speak over the years – but we just happen not to have this time.

“We have to play to the demographic. If I put on a festival in Brixton where I used to live, I don’t think we’d have many white speakers. But we are in Wiltshire and its not my fault that demographic is mainly white.

“It is ridiculous that people are dropping out because they think we are not diverse enough – there is no point in having a black speaker just to make a point because that is insulting to them.”

He added: “The bottom line is I am not having anyone bullying me as to the editorial content of the festival. The Daily Mail who sponsors it doesn’t bully me. I am not going to be browbeaten into having one person of this type and another person of that type for the sake of it, because I think that is insulting to those speakers.

“We do a lot of current affairs, Chinese history, ISIS history and things like that and I am not going to discriminate against anyone. Germany was the most liberal place on the planet in the 1930s on the planet until it changed to become a totalitarian and we don’t want our democracy to be damaged.”

Alexandra Churchill, a historian also speaking at the festival whose father was Asian and mother white, also spoke to The Bookseller in defence of the event. She is speaking in place of Labour's Harriet Harman who dropped out earlier for other reasons.

She said: “I looked at that line up and thought what a brilliant, stellar line up of historians. I thought what a brilliant set of guests,” she said.  “It wasn’t until all this started occurring to me that I thought ‘Oh yeah, a lot of the speakers are white’. But I’m not surprised, I have been doing this for years and very rarely come across anyone of colour writing in my area. It has all been blown out of proportion. I have never faced any racism in my career."

She added: "And to be honest it annoys me when white people fight this corner for me. I don’t want to be sat on a panel next week or in future years and think is everyone thinking they included me now just because I am brown. I don’t want to be a token. I want to be there on my own merit and I am.”

The festival was founded six years ago by Ottaker’s founder James Heneage and Holland.

All proceeds from the festival go into the Chalke Valley History Trust, which is used to boost history in schools by way of things like scholarships or funding trips to historic sites.   

Rideal and Riddell have both been contacted for comment but had not responded by the time this article was published.