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How Baillie Gifford sponsorship row hurts book festivals

The future of local book festivals is under threat after Baillie Gifford bowed to pressure from activists and withdrew its sponsorship from literary events, organisers have warned.

The investment firm is pulling the plug on its support all literary festivals after protests and boycotts over its alleged links to fossil fuels and Israel.

It comes after organisers of the Hay Festival took the decision to end Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship following a boycott threat.

The Edinburgh International Festival has also “collectively agreed” to terminate its agreement with the firm. Cheltenham Literature Festival indicated that the decision to end its partnership with Baillie Gifford had come from the firm.

Cambridge, Stratford, Wigtown and Henley literary festivals have all confirmed that the company has pulled its sponsorship.

Although large-scale events with global reputations may be able to attract new sponsors, smaller festivals often serving rural communities say they will now struggle to make up the funding shortfall.

Wigtown Book Festival, which has ben running for 25 years in the Dumfries and Galloway countryside, confirmed this week that Baillie Gifford had withdrawn its sponsorship from the event.

“The financial position for most festivals is already fragile,” Adrian Turpin, artistic director of festival, told i.

“We’re constantly searching for new sources of funding but now we have £100,000 missing from our five-year plan.”

Baillie Gifford had supported the festival, which hosts 250 activities including theatre, music and visual art every September, for more than a decade.

Clare Balding speaking at Wigtown Book Festival

Last year, it delivered author sessions and workshops to 5,500 children and young people across the region.

Mr Turpin said: “The fear is festivals will have to cut back on the scale of the programme. We’ll have to fight hard to keep the community outreach elements which are so important.”

“Logically it’s going to mean festivals have less money and reduce what they can offer. Ticket prices could go up.”

“The temptation will be to book more celebrity authors to sell out tents. But it’s the mid-range writers and the debut authors, the exciting new talent, who will miss out.”

Baillie Gifford’s retreat followed mounting pressure from the campaign group Fossil Free Books (FFB), which called on the firm to cease its investments in the fossil fuel industry.

It also demanded it divest from companies linked to Israel, as it believes “solidarity with Palestine and climate justice are inextricably linked”.

But Philippe Sands KC, who sits on the Hay Festival board and has acted for Palestinians at the International Court of Justice, described the case against the asset manager as “tenuous”. Claims over links to Israel had not yet been established, he said.

Mr Turpin said the protests could drive away other possible corporate sponsors. “Why would companies take the reputational risk of sponsoring festivals if they have to pass a potential purity test?”

Confirming the end of its ten-year partnership with Baillie Gifford, Annie Ashworth, director of the Stratford Literary Festival, said the sponsorship loss “will inevitably impact on our operations, and may result in increased ticket prices and a reduction in the scope of what we deliver”.

She added: “It will sadly also impact on our ability to deliver important literacy outreach work in the community, teaching bedtime story writing in prisons and projects and author visits in schools, engaging the readers of the future. However, we are determined to continue to do the work of which we are so proud.”

Adrian Turpin - Wigtown Book Festival Artistic Director, 22/09/2020: Adrian Turpin, pictured outside the Wigtown Festival Company's office / shop in Wigtown. Photography for Wigtown Book Festival Company from: Colin Hattersley Photography - - - 07974 957 388.
Adrian Turpin, director of Wigtown Book Festival, says literary events could face cuts (Photo: Colin Hattersley/Wigtown Book Festival)

Ms Ashworth added: ‘We all fear climate change and deplore conflict, but the withdrawal of sponsorship from book festivals is not the solution.”

Fiona Razvi, director of the Wimbledon BookFest, said: “As lead sponsor for the past eight years, Baillie Gifford’s support has been invaluable in helping us to expand and sustain the festival through the challenging times of recent years, helping us to bring thought-provoking and inspiring events to our audience and widening cultural access for all in our community.”

Baillie Gifford believes it is being unfairly targeted. A spokesman said: “We are not a significant fossil fuel investor. Only 2 per cent of our clients’ money is invested in companies with some business related to fossil fuels. This compares to the market average of 11 per cent.”

The Edinburgh-based firm, which manages £225bn in assets, added: “The suggestion that Baillie Gifford is a large investor in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is seriously misleading.”

The firm is a “large investor in several multinational technology companies, including Amazon, Nvidia (semiconductors) and Meta (the owner of Facebook and Instagram). Their commercial dealings with the state of Israel are tiny in the context of their overall business.

It remains the sponsor of the prestigious Baillie Gifford UK prize for non-fiction.

A spokesperson from the prize said: “We have always found them to be collaborative, generous and transparent about their investments. They are contracted to sponsor the prize until the end of 2025 and we are fully committed to that relationship.”

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