On Thursday afternoon, Elias Anastas received a confusing message. It was from someone who worked at the Barbican cultural centre in London about an event he was about to dial into there. “In terms of content,” it said, “avoid talking about free palestine [sic] at length […] just to further safeguard the audience.”
The message was confusing because Anastas had been invited to discuss this exact subject: the Palestinian community radio station he had co-founded, Radio AlHara. It was even more confusing because the soundcheck was already underway.
Moments earlier, the same Barbican staffer had pulled aside Anastas’ interviewer, Nihal El Aasar. The staffer told El Aasar that a member of senior management had asked if she and Anastas could “steer clear of thorny issues”; when El Aasar probed which issues these were, the staff member said: “Free Palestine […] or whatever”.
“You do realise that it’s an event about a Palestinian radio station,” El Aasar responded. “It’s not like we’re going out of the way to discuss thorny issues, that’s the crux of the event.”
El Aasar asked if she could the staff member could put her request in writing. Anastas immediately published a screenshot of the message, with the caption “institutional censorship”.
Within half an hour, the Barbican had cancelled the event, citing technical difficulties. In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the organisation apologised for its intervention, which has prompted questions over its stated commitment to Palestinian liberation, racial justice and freedom of speech.
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The event at which Anastas was due to speak was part of a three-day programme co-organised by the Resolve Collective, a design collective with a social justice ethos. ‘What Is Happening Inside?’ aimed to support young people to produce audio work “that engage[s] with what happens inside institutions and how communities can take control”. In the event description on the Barbican website, the term “radical” appeared twice.
Ashok Kumar is a politics lecturer at Birkbeck University in London and was present at the event. Speaking to Novara Media, he says the briefing the Barbican gave to Anastas and El Aasar exposes a “contradiction” between the organisation’s desire to attract “vibesy” young people and its imperative “to narrowly circumscribe what you can say, especially around Palestine.”
“Would the Barbican have told a Black South African artist decades ago to avoid talking “at length” about ending apartheid to protect the sensibilities of pro-apartheid audience members?” asked Artists for Palestine UK (APUK), a network of pro-Palestinian artists and culture workers launched in 2015, in its statement on the event.
After struggling to establish a video link with Anastas, the Barbican organisers decided to cancel the event entirely due to poor WiFi.
“It seemed very half-hearted,” El Aasar tells Novara Media. “The Barbican always has good technical staff at hand at any event.”
“I literally wrote my entire PhD at the Barbican,” says Kumar. “It has the best WiFi […] maybe it was the one day that it happened, it just seems very strange.” APUK is preparing a freedom of information request that it hopes will shed further light on why the event was cancelled.
In a statement shared with Novara Media, a spokesperson for the Barbican said: “In haste, shortly before the event was due to begin, the Barbican shared an editorial note with the speaker asking him to avoid spending too much time discussing free Palestine. The situation was compounded by a technical failure with the live broadcast, which unfortunately brought the event to an abrupt close.
“This intervention by the Barbican relating to the content of the talk was unacceptable and a serious error of judgement, for which we are deeply sorry,” they added. “As an organisation we believe in the importance of free speech, dialogue and debate – giving a platform to the experiences and views of individuals and groups involved in free Palestine is part of this commitment.” They added that the organisation hopes to reschedule the event.
Co-organisers the Resolve Collective has distanced itself from the Barbican’s decision, both online and off. As well as apologising “profusely” to the speakers, they also shared the message the Barbican staffer sent to Anastas on Instagram, commenting: “We are deeply saddened by this amongst many other extremely disappointing incidents recently.”
‘Many other extremely disappointing incidents.’
In February, the Barbican came under fire from a group of APUK-aligned artists, including poet Benjamin Zephaniah and actor Miriam Margoyles, for its collaboration with the Israeli embassy on an event featuring an interfaith Jerusalem orchestra. The Barbican has yet to officially end its partnership with the embassy.
To many, the organisation’s sensitivity around Palestine appears confusing: the venue has for a number of years hosted the London Palestinian Film Festival, and has previously hosted a number of Palestinian cultural events. El Aasar suggests the move could reflect the marked growth in recent years of “anti-Palestinian sentiment” which she describes as a “backlash [against] the Overton window shifting towards Palestine […] after the May 2021 uprisings”.
The move is also surprising given the Barbican’s commitment two years ago to “radical transformation” on racial and gender equality after more than 120 allegations of discrimination were published in a 256-page book entitled Barbican Stories, prompting an external review.
Then again, says Kumar, institutional conceptions of racial justice are often “disarticulated” from concepts of imperialism and colonialism. “Their anti-racism is like, ‘Oh, let’s get a few more people of colour on our board, or whatever’”, he says, “but [when it comes to] one of the most brutal contemporary examples of racism, they’re like, ‘Oh, that has nothing to do with race.’”
Frankie Leach is a Labour councillor for the City of London and sits on the local authority’s culture, heritage and libraries committee. In a message to Novara Media, she says that: “As far as I’m aware, the Barbican is committed to developing and maintaining a positive and strong connection with the Palestinian and Arab diaspora. … This is clearly a massive error on their part, but I hope this is a moment for reflection.”
She adds: “I hope what follows is a concerted effort by the Barbican to … ensure their staff are aware of the importance of Palestinian freedom of expression and human rights, given the culture of repression so many [Palestinians] face.”
In May, the Barbican’s artistic director Will Gompertz told Prospect magazine that the greatest threat to the arts today is from cancel culture. “The purpose of the arts is to question, challenge, reflect and enlighten,” he said, “but […] debate is being stifled by self-censorship and fear of disagreeing with the prevailing orthodoxy.”
“Previous generations have fought hard for free speech,” he added. “So must we.”