This comment was first published by Common Knowledge Edinburgh and is republished with permission. David Scott covered the same issue for UK Column News on 21 August 2023.
Common Knowledge had contacted Comedy Unleashed about hosting an event during the Edinburgh Festival in May. After a bit of backwards and forwards, it was agreed that 17 August would be a good date and the venue was booked.
However, the original venue lacked theatre style seating—which, we were advised, did impact on the delivery of the comedy; i.e., at tables the audience were tempted to chat and that was distracting to the comedians. A space that could supply serried rows of seating was optimum to assist the concentration required for hilarity.
But it was the Festival. All spaces were being colonised by would-be artists following their dreams and hoping for a hit. Where could one be found? It does not take a local social and political commentator of insight to know that despite Edinburgh’s population doubling in size during the Festival, the intensity of footfall, consumption and economic transactions are centred on the … centre, where long-established venues and bespoke arenas are the mainstay of where Festival shows are housed (a little like an Arts Cartel); therefore, why not try the periphery, like Leith?
One such venue, part café, part adaptable space, could be ideal and so it initially seemed. Leith Arches offered their space for free, generously hoping to support a comedy night that would be mutually beneficial. They could provide the arrangement of chairs requested, a spotlight, bar staff and a sound system. The prospects were good.
Then it all soured. Leith Arches had been notified of the line-up, all the names given, except Graham Linehan’s, who appeared on the advertising as ‘a mystery cancelled comedian’. As is the case with most venues, they did not ask about the line-up and we only submitted the names through a promotional leaflet and the advertising.
Perhaps the entire incident can be traced to my decision to ask Comedy Unleashed to make Graham Linehan anonymous. I knew that trans activists didn’t like him. Still, I did not know the depth of the loathing many people felt for him, not being engaged with the gender debate to any significant degree (I didn’t follow Graham Linehan or any similar activists like him on social media and was surprised he was doing stand-up comedy at all).
In all honesty, it would probably have made no difference whether the venue had known he was on the bill or not. They had never heard of him—a fact that abruptly changed. They certainly heard a lot about him when the news leaked that he was going to be appearing in Edinburgh.
‘LGBTQ’ customers and partners made their position very clear to the venue, and Leith Arches dropped the gig, before speaking to anyone on our side. They made an ill-advised post on their social media account, written by a member of staff who—aside from a lack of punctuation and clarity in their sentencing—felt the need to pontificate about inclusivity while excluding someone for their beliefs. The writer was inexperienced with PR, although the post was approved by the management.
At this point, the ability for Common Knowledge or Comedy Unleashed to manage events was passed to the forces of outrage and the clashing armies of the culture war. Graham Linehan, fed up with being discriminated against for the views he believes are morally right, threatened to sue the venue, while they were bombarded with calls, tweets and online reviews expressing incensed anger—which completely bewildered them and left them distraught at the prospect of losing their small business, while also simultaneously wondering how trying to do a nice thing had misfired so spectacularly.
Comedy Unleashed, from our side, were completely sympathetic to the need not to torch small venues in an inferno of outrage; however, they did want to defend the right of comedians and artists to speak freely and protect their right to hold a belief. Ultimately, this was more important than any venue; in fact, it was more important than any festival. They defended the right of Graham to hold these views and tell jokes to the public in a public space.
We all still wanted the gig to go ahead, so Common Knowledge found another venue, informing its management of the controversial nature of the show. They were prepared to take the booking, until the next morning, when one of the Executive Members walked into the club’s morning management meeting with a copy of the Metro, with Graham Linehan on the front page. Ultimately, it was just too hot to handle and Graham was cancelled again, although this time not for his views.
Comedy Unleashed were very honourable and kept the second venue out of the headlines (which I am sure they would have done for Leith Arches if given the chance), since we were all looking for compromise and were all too aware of the law of unintended consequences, hoping to pull the teeth of the issue to prevent anything more damaging than some venomous online trolling.
And this is why the gig ended-up outside the Scottish Parliament. No-one else would or could host it, but Comedy Unleashed were determined they would not be cancelled. And they weren’t. To a good-sized audience, photographically misrepresented by The Guardian as always, nearly all the comedians performed, including, crucially, Graham who had the chance to make some jokes and say his piece. (For the record, I counted over 140 people there, not the 50 the Pink News claimed—which was a little dispiriting to read, since no-one benefits from lies or spin; or, to be generous, from poor sources or innumeracy—and genuine minorities have least to gain from indulging in these tactics in the long term.)
Did free speech win? It is difficult to say. What is clear is that the story gained an unbelievable amount of traction. It was in the national press, the international press but also, importantly, in the local press, where people interact and talk to each other to a greater extent than elsewhere. It has crystallised the issue and many influential people declared their hand, one way or another, which is exactly what is required to save free speech. Ironically, the argument about free speech is exactly what is needed to save free speech.
There was also another feeling: a sense a line had been crossed and that people now wanted a different direction. It is a horrible tactic to try to stop people from having a platform. It is a lack of belief in your own ideas, a lack of faith in people and an attitude and actions unworthy of a democracy. If people do not like Graham Linehan, then they don’t have to pay to see him. That’s freedom.