The York Festival of Ideas kicks off next week. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on the fifth such event.

BET you thought you'd never hear a top NATO general going head-to-head, in public, with a Guardian investigative journalist over whether the newspaper was right to publish whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures about the extent of the US National Security Agency's surveillance of telephone data, right?

Well, next month you will – and right here in York.

NATO deputy chief of staff, Major General Gordon 'Skip' Davis, will join Guardian investigative journalist Ewen MacAskill on a panel that will be discussing the sensitive issue of surveillance and security.

It promises to be perhaps the most explosive and revealing event in what looks set, this year, to be an outstanding York Festival of Ideas.

Joan Concannon, the director of external relations at the University of York, which organises the festival, admitted getting General Davis was quite a coup.

"I wasn't sure he'd want to be on the panel," she said. "But he feels that he has something to say about Edward Snowden. I know that he has some concerns about the implications."

Following a keynote address by MacAskill, the Guardian's defence and intelligence correspondent, on June 20, General Davis will join the MacAskill, intelligence and security consultant Richard Evans, and Sultan Barakat, a Middle East policy analyst, for a panel discussion. Expect some fireworks.

There will be sparks aplenty flying throughout this year's two-week festival from June 9 to 21, however.

The overall theme is secrets and discoveries, and the line-up is probably the best yet in the festival's brief history – this is its fifth year.

Among those who will be appearing in York are the Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who will be discussing the nature of democracy; War Horse author Michael Morpurgo; philosopher AC Grayling; disgraced former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, Government chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport and Sir Dermot Turing, nephew of the codebreaker and mathematical genius Alan Turing.

Throughout the two weeks of the festival, events will be held at venues across the city, including the university, but also Tempest Anderson Hall, the NRM, the Museum Gardens, the National Centre for Early Music, Explore York library and St Helen's Church. There will be more than 100 events in all, many of them free, all of them open to the public. In fact, the more people that come, the better, says Mrs Concannon.

Last year, more than 30,000 people attended. "We believe that this year's programme has something of interest for everyone," she said.

"But most of all we believe that we are a more interesting festival because our audiences are driven by an innate sense of curiosity. So for two weeks in June, join us to be entertained, educated and inspired..."

Now there's an invitation not to be missed.

To find out more about this year's York Festival of Ideas, and to download a brochure, visit


• The Mozart Question. Author Michael Morpurgo joins actress Alison Reid, violinist Daniel Pioro and The Storyteller’s Ensemble join forces for an evening of words and music based ion Morpurgo’s novel about survival during the holocaust. Advance night, Friday June 5, York Minster, 7.30pm. Tickets free

• Truth, Trust and Trysts. Philosopher AC Grayling explores how the truth can be destructive as well as good. Followed at 7.15pm by Secrets from Journalism, Politics and Prison. Former cabinet member Jonathan Aitken reveals ‘secrets from a life in journalism’. Opening night, Tuesday June 9, Tempest Anderson Hall, 5.30pm. Tickets free.

• What are the demands of democracy? Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen discusses the nature of democracy. University of York Central Hall, Wednesday June 10, 6.45pm, tickets free.

• Surveillance, Snowden and Security. Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill and NATO deputy chief of staff Major General Gordon ‘Skip’ Davis join a panel discussion about the implications of the Edward Snowden leaks and their publication in newspapers. University of York, 3pm to 4.30pm, June 20. Tickets free.