Amnesty International: Free the Fringe

Blog by Steve Ballinger | 12 Aug 2009
  • Steve Ballinger



Free the Fringe!

By Steve Ballinger, Amnesty International 

I was at David O’Doherty’s (fantastic) gig last night and he was running through his list of ‘Beefs’. One was ‘Comedians who describe themselves in their Edinburgh flyer  as controversial – you can’t find yourself controversial’. Probably not the finest example of his hilarious set, but it makes my point – how acceptable is it for comedians to deliberately court controversy to shift tickets? 

Amnesty’s here at the festival to highlight our work to protect freedom of expression, but that doesn’t mean I have to (i) agree with everything that everyone at the festival says or (ii) leap to the defence of some bigot who starts spouting racial hatred. Free speech is a limited right - it can be restricted to protect the rights of other people. But it’s also one of the most important rights that there is, and once the right to speak freely is taken away, other abuses follow (and it’s a lot harder to find out about them). 

While this may just sound like a bit of fence-sitting, it gets to the heart of a debate that comedians have been riffing off for years – Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, all tried to push the boundaries of what was considered ‘acceptable’. 

And it’s a debate that’s still alive at the Fringe today. Witness the ‘controversy’ around Richard Herring’s ‘Hitler Moustache’ show, where he examines racism and our attitudes to it, while trying to reclaim the one-inch ‘tache back for Charlie Chaplin (after it was annexed by Adolf Hitler). Personally I was pretty impressed with his very measured response to a Guardian article accusing him of being part of a ‘movement’ called ‘The New Offensiveness’.  

Is Amnesty’s  Stand Up For Freedom show, at the Assembly Hall at midnight tonight, ‘controversial’? I’ll find out this evening. We’ve got Richard Herring playing tonight and we had Brendon Burns last year. It’s certainly not going to be tame or ‘PC’. It will be brilliant, it always is – the atmosphere at the show’s amazing and as well as Andrew Maxwell, Janey Godley, Rob Rouse and Colin & Fergus, there’s a very special guest appearing tonight who we haven’t told anyone about yet. And just to round off the plug, there’s a 2-for-1 ticket  deal for Fest readers: just call the box office on 0131 623 3030 and quote ‘FEST OFFER’ . 

What I like about being part of Amnesty is that we often start out as controversial and bring people round to our way of thinking, through sheer pig-headedness (and two million members who’ll keep writing letters until someone pays attention to them). I remember doing a radio interview a few years ago and calling for Guantanamo Bay to be closed. They thought I was nuts. Earlier this year I watched as the US President signed an executive order that will (eventually) consign Gitmo to history – not so controversial now.  

So is it OK to court controversy to sell your Edinburgh show? Within certain very wide limits, you’re free to do so. But if you’re just doing it to flog tickets, everyone’s free to have a go at you for it too.


Fest has team up with Amnesty International to offer you an exclusive 2-for-1 deal on tickets for tonight's Stand up for Freedom gig. Just head to