An Australian arts minister has demanded Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) cancel a talk about bestiality by the eminent British historian Prof Joanna Bourke, while admitting he had not contacted the festival for more information before calling for the event to be scrapped.
Bourke, the author of several books including 2020’s Loving Animals, is scheduled to deliver her talk The Last Taboo on 17 September, which has been billed as exploring “the modern history of sex between humans and animals” but does not endorse bestiality. FODI has in the past hosted controversial speakers including Christopher Hitchens and Julian Assange.
But on Thursday, after being contacted for comment by the talkback radio host Ben Fordham, the office for the New South Wales arts minister, Ben Franklin, said he was “deeply concerned by the contents of The Last Taboo and is demanding festival organisers remove it from their program”.
In the statement, Franklin said he had not contacted FODI before “immediately” asking the NSW arts policy body Create NSW to contact the organisers and demand the event be scrapped.
Festival curator and Ethics Centre director, Simon Longstaff, said Bourke’s views had been “quite profoundly misrepresented” in isolated quotes shared by Fordham, including the statement that “interspecies relationships can be complex, rich and fulfilling”.
He said that Bourke’s book on the history of bestiality did not endorse it, but “offers just three possible ways of thinking about zoophilia – as dangerous, perverted or wrongheaded”.
“If somebody was to provide a history of cannibalism or slavery, does that mean they are therefore encouraging us to eat each other or enslave our fellow man?” Longstaff said.
“There is this intense notion that things that you don’t like should be canceled or silenced because they’re difficult. The arch proof of FODI’s necessity is in events of the last few days.”
Longstaff said that FODI, which has also hosted Salman Rushdie and Pussy Riot, was established to protect freedom of speech for artists and intellectuals who were silenced in their own countries.
“To have a minister in NSW using that approach that we’ve provided refuge from for people from overseas is quite extraordinary,” he said.
“How can you possibly determine that a talk isn’t what the community wants to hear about when you have no idea what the talk is about?”
He said Bourke was “trolled” online “by lowlifes who have put her in their sights because of misleading comments about what her views are, which are objectively false and obviously so”.
Franklin has ordered Create NSW to investigate the matter, as the festival received government funding as part of the state’s Covid-19 recovery package.
On Monday, Franklin told Guardian Australia he had always supported and continued to support “independent artistic expression”, but remained concerned about The Last Taboo talk.
He said the festival had been funded by taxpayers and it was imperative the festival’s content “cannot be seen to – even implicitly – condone extreme acts that have been deemed by both society and the law to be utterly unacceptable”.
He noted the FODI had made changes to its website and the festival’s promotion of its program over the weekend.
“However, I remain concerned that ‘The Last Taboo’ could still be seen to condone this behaviour,” Franklin said. “The title itself implies other ‘taboos’ (or practices that were once deemed inappropriate) are now acceptable, and that this is therefore the last domino to fall.
“It is for that reason that I do not believe The Last Taboo should remain on the program of the event.”
Guardian Australia understands that no government funding provided to the festival was used to pay for Bourke’s speaking fees or flights to Australia.
Longstaff said he felt “totally confident” the investigation would find in Bourke’s favour, but said even if it didn’t, “we will go ahead.”
“If any government minister sought to intervene to prevent this event, then every reasonable person who believes in the discussion of ideas, both difficult and easy, would stand with us against them,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if there were some reasonable grounds to censor something that actually exists. But to censor a nonexistent event – that’s taking the notion of the role of the state in censoring ideas to a point that Orwell himself would have been troubled by.”
In 2014, FODI cancelled a talk by Uthman Badar, from Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, that was titled Honour Killings Are Morally Justified. The event was condemned on social media and fiercely opposed by two NSW government ministers. At the time, Longstaff said he regretted the name of the lecture and that “Uthman’s view is that no form of vigilante killing is justified.”