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What is Baillie Gifford and why is its sponsorship of the Edinburgh Fringe controversial?

A view of the Edinburgh Fringe shop and ticket office on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday April 1, 2020
A view of the Edinburgh Fringe shop and ticket office on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday April 1, 2020 Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz
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What is Baillie Gifford and why are festivals being pressured to drop their sponsorship this summer?

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The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has just announced that it will stick with its sponsorship deal with Baillie Gifford, after an internal review over the company’s links to Israel and fossil fuels.

Fringe CEO Shona McCarthy has said that among the “fevered environment” festivals exist in, the board voted “overwhelmingly” in support of maintaining the partnership.

Baillie Gifford is a Scottish investment firm that entered the public eye in August last year when over 50 authors threatened to boycott the Edinburgh Book Festival over its investments in corporations that profit from fossil fuels.

At the time, it was reported that the firm had around £4.5 billion (€5.3 billion) invested in companies involved in oil and gas money. Baillie Gifford has sponsored many of the major literary festivals around the UK in recent years, including the Hay, Borders, and Cheltenham Book Festivals, alongside Edinburgh Book Festival and Fringe Festival.

After the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip following the October 7 attacks by Hamas, the boycott, championed by pressure group Fossil Free Books, has also demand that Baillie Gifford also divest “from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide.”

Fossil Free Books’s pressure has succeeded to make the Hay Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Wigtown Book Festival, and Borders Book Festival end their partnerships with Baillie Gifford.

The Edinburgh Fringe, which will run from 2-26 August, is the latest festival to come under pressure from Fossil Free Books. After deciding to stick with the company’s £40,000 (€47,400) annual funding in March, the Fringe’s board put the decision under review once again ahead of its programme launch, today (12 June).

A view of the Edinburgh Fringe shop and ticket office on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday April 1, 2020
A view of the Edinburgh Fringe shop and ticket office on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday April 1, 2020David Cheskin/AP

Speaking at the launch of the festival’s programme, which will feature 3,317 shows by performers from 58 countries, McCarthy confirmed that the festival was sticking with the Baillie Gifford sponsorship deal.

She told The Guardian how the financial strain the festival has come under in recent years in their decision making: “We’re expected to be all things to all people, be the most values-driven organisations on the planet, alert to everything that’s going on in our geopolitical environment and to keep our teams in jobs, keep solvent and deal with deficits and loans from Covid that we’re all still carrying.”

McCarthy noted how the arts sector was being left behind by investors as they were still expected to grow, yet there was little in the way of support. “We’re described as a ‘signature event’ – what would that mean if we were golf, or cricket, or tennis, or football? My guess is it would mean serious investment and infrastructure behind that.”

Deputy chief executive Lyndsey Jackson also gave the reasoning that: “What’s not understood is the level of risk taken on an individual and organisational level by quite small businesses who don’t know if it’s going to pay off every year”.

Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship money goes to the festival as an unrestricted donation, that the Fringe can choose what to do with. Since it first partnered with the festival in 2022, the money has been used to partner with 39 community organisations and provide free tickets to those who can’t afford them.

“It would absolutely break my heart not to be able to do that work. I know that everybody in the team here feels that way, because it’s the thing that kind of brings a smile to your face all year round,” McCarthy has said.

Other festivals being pressured by Fossil Free Books over their links to Baillie Gifford include the Cambridge Literary Festival, Henley Literary Festival, Wimbledon BookFest and the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

Baillie Gifford has argued just 2% of its clients’ money is being invested into companies related to fossil fuels, lower than a market average of 11%.

The decision by the Fringe to stick with the investment firm despite pressure over links to Israeli firms mirrors the pressures faced by music festivals across the UK.

Artists have pulled out of The Great Escape, Latitude and Download Festivals over their partnerships with Barclays Bank, after the bank’s investments into companies that supply arms to Israel was highlighted by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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