Jonathan Sacks with James Harding

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Jonathan Sacks, Baron Sacks, is a rabbi, philosopher and scholar of Judaism, who was Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013.  His book ‘Not in God’s Name – Confronting Religious Violence’ explores the concept of altruistic evil or the execution of terrible acts in the name of a higher power.

Religion is on the rise across the world, simply because religious people have far more children. The secular nations of Europe all have a birth rate of less than two per family, so secular communities are in a period of inevitable decline.

Lord Sacks, it transpires, is a fan of social media and believes that we should be using it more to build bonds in society “but there is also a lot of anger on the Internet.”

Sacks compares the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam to sibling rivalry. He cites Freud in describing this rivalry as a powerful and violent force. However, he says that the many bible stories about sibling conflict are teaching followers of all three religions, not to view themselves this way.

The BBC’s Head of News James Harding challenges this view, saying that religious teachings that tell their adherents that they are “chosen”‘ must themselves be a source of conflict. Lord Sacks counters saying that religion will ultimately persuade its followers to question conflict that brings suffering on its own people.

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Jon Ronson with John Mitchinson

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The Psychopath Test is Ronson’s last book and that’s where he starts. Labelling people as mentally ill can be highly problematic, but we all like a “mental health check list” he says. There’s a parallel with his new book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” The public shaming that takes place on the internet is a form of labelling and it is intentionally dehumanising.

The book contains chapters based on a whole series of examples of public shaming. One of these was about Justine Sacco, who sent an ostensibly racist tweet whilst on her way to South Africa. She believed she was making a joke exposing a passive racist bubble in which many white Americans exist. That’s not what the twitterati believed. The shaming took place whilst Justine was asleep on the plane with no access to the internet. By the time she landed she was the focus of worldwide hatred and had lost her job.

After Ronson took us through his book-centred performance, and performance it was, with timing and humour honed over an extensive promotional tour, John Mitchinson’s interview was completely on point.  If you didn’t have tickets for Texas this was a fine way to end a Hay day.

We are defining the boundaries of normality by terrorising and humiliating the people who stand outside.  Social justice is being defined by people who care more about ideology than they do about people, says Ronson.

Nick Cohen talks to Sarfraz Manzoor

20150525_174454“Whatever else this man is he’s not a politician.” Nick Cohen begins by saying that left wing journalists failed in their duty by not saying that Ed Miliband couldn’t win an election because he wasn’t convincing as a prospective prime minister.

Cohen argues that 2015 was also a turning point where the traditional progressive majority in the UK was eroded and the parties on the right gained over 50% of the votes (58% if you include the Liberal Democrats).

Manzoor invites the audience to ask questions during the discussion to be “part of the conversation”. It has mixed results and the discussion becomes more than a little fragmented as a result. We move onto Tony Blair, there is a sense that the audience is skeptical about him and that both Cohen and Manzoor believe he is the sort of leader that the Labour Party now needs. Manzoor challenges a Tory voter in the audience “did you feel the Conservative campaign was full of love?” She responds by accusing him of being patronising and a vocal section of the audience agrees.

Bizarrely many of those speaking from the floor say that they voted Conservative but few of them seem happy about it. That could be a “Hay effect” but begs the question as to why they grabbed a microphone.

Another member of the audience takes a swipe at the chair, this time taking offence at being addressed as a lady. “Dimbleby never gets this kind of shit” says Manzoor.

Nick Cohen has some very interesting and insightful things to say but the early evening session is dominated by people from the floor. They completely ignore Manzoor’s request that they ask questions rather than take the opportunity to give their own, far from original or insightful, opinions.

Andrew Keen and Robert Phillips talk to Sarah Churchwell

Andrew Keen is the author of ‘The Internet is Not the Answer ‘ which argues that the internet is having a negative effect on our culture. Robert Phillips, ex CEO of Edelman, a leading global PR firm, has written ‘Trust Me PR is Dead’.

I have to declare an interest here; I’m a PR person and I’m on the board of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, so I don’t entirely subscribe to Robert’s assertion.

Actually he starts by saying that PR isn’t dead. What Phillips asserts is that the problem is that PR doesn’t speak to the common good and doesn’t focus enough on trustworthiness.

Whilst Robert Phillips is concerned with a failure of trust revealed by the transparency brought about by the internet, Andrew Keen believes that internet itself is a cause of inequality and injustice. The internet does away with top down elitist structures but it also sweeps away the trusted frameworks that support society. Keen described the world as flat, one in which we have contempt for leaders yet long for leadership.

Leadership failure is a subject that Robert Phillips covers too. He cites the recent disastrous corporate performance of Thomas Cook.  It has been characterised as a PR failure but as Robert implies, it was actually a corporate failure.

Andrew Keen has the final word and applauds Robert’s appeal for greater values and morality but also says we must become less self obsessed. The problem with the Internet is that when we look at it we see ourselves.

It was a captivating, intellectual debate, but I’m no more convinced about the failures of the Internet or the Public Relations industry, than I was at the beginning. Who would have imagined.

Simon Singh

by Virginia

SinghA lot was riding on Simon Singh tonight.  I had chosen his talk over Simon Armitage,  Laslo Krasznahorkai  and Germaine Greer, who I’d have loved to see, because I enjoyed ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ so much.   Then I’d had a frustrating time getting here due to a missed turn en-route adding an hour to the journey.   High winds on arrival, and a broken pole mean it took longer than expected to erect t the tent, and so I missed my first event. If the day was going to be redeemed, Singh’s talk had better be good…

I’m delighted to say that it was way better than that, and meant after hours of frustration, my Hay has kicked off in style. Which was particularly pleasing as my eldest, Beth (16) decided to come along at the last minute and I would have also hated to disappoint her.

For those unfamiliar with Singh’s book, it tells the story of Andrew Wiles, a mathematician who was obsessed with solving Fermat’s Last Theorem. That puzzle was laid down by Fermat, who liked to writ e notes in the margins of his copy of Arithmetica. In one, he claimed to have proved a particular equation, but there wasn’t space to write the proof, thereby setting down a challenge for mathematicians for 350 years. 

Tonight’s talk was a celebration of twenty  years since Wiles’ tremendous achievement. Fittingly, it began with an excerpt from the BBC film of the story in which Wiles is filled with emotion as he remembers the moment he knew he’d completed the proof.  ‘We’ve all had occasions when maths made us want to cry’ Singh commented wryly, before taking us through the story and why it mattered so much to the mathematician.  An obsession formed when he was ten, led to him spending years studying the theorem, till a breakthrough in a new field of mathematics gave him the tools for a possible solution. For the next seven years Wiles toiled away in secret, until he finally worked out a proof. Even that wasn’t the end of the story as the proof later turned out to have an error and it was another eighteen months before it was absolutely watertight.

Singh is as an engaging a presenter as he is a writer, and he told the absorbing tale with verve and energy. Beth loved it. And when we met the author afterwards, he proved as engaging in person as he is on stage and page.  So look out for his books, he’s well worth a read.

After a somewhat wobbly start, my festival has begun.

Galina Timchenko, Mikhail Zygar, and Oliver Bullough talk to Nataliya Vasilyeva.

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Oliver Bullough, Mikhail Zygar.The influence and impact of Russian authority is evident before the session even begins when we learn that Galina has had passport issues and joins the session via a live link from Moscow.

Who is Putin? That’s the question everyone asked when he rose to power and to a great extent that is still the salient question.  When Putin came to power and restored Russian control over Chechnya, he was genuinely popular but he was also ruthless in eliminating opposition; “opponents just vanished” said Bullough.

Putin’s approval rating remains in the high 80% range, but Galina questions the way the polls are conducted and thinks that his real approval is “maybe half of the population”. Bullough reminds us that the opinions polls in the UK haven’t been too accurate of late.

At the beginning of his presidency Putin wanted to join NATO and build alliances with Bush and Blair. He felt rebuffed by both. This was one of a number of blows that included the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that shaped a more hard line approach to Russian foreign policy. The annexation of Crimea was a piece of ruthless opportunism but it was exercised so efficiently that it had probably planned for some time.

Mikhail Zygar runs an independent TV station that in January was effectively shut down by the authorities. The government banned advertising from non state channels in a direct challenge to the continued existence of the station. The viewers responded by raising $2m to keep the station on air.