Comic Relief in crisis as chairman quits over Gaza ceasefire call

Wrecked buildings in Gaza
The petition signed by the charity stated: 'Neighbourhoods have been destroyed and turned into complete rubble' by Israel - Mohammed Hajjar/AP

Comic Relief has been plunged into crisis after its chairman resigned over the charity’s stance on Gaza, it can be revealed.

Eric Salama quit his position after he said Comic Relief’s management took “an approach to an issue which I thought was profoundly wrong and which I could not live with”.

The issue is understood to have been the charity’s decision to join dozens of other organisations in calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza conflict.

Comic Relief admitted the fallout came over “a stance being taken on a public issue without any prior consultation with the board or Eric as chair”.

Eric Salama
Eric Salama was appointed chairman of Comic Relief following a glittering career in the City

The move has raised questions about the governance of one of Britain’s highest-profile charities. It was set up in 1985 by Richard Curtis, the director and screenwriter, and Sir Lenny Henry in response to the famine in Ethiopia.

There are fears that corporate donors might shy away from being linked to any organisation perceived to be taking sides in the conflict.

The row may also threaten Comic Relief’s partnership with the BBC, which has itself been criticised for alleged bias in its reporting of the Gaza-Israel conflict. Calls for a ceasefire have also split the Labour Party.

Comic Relief has previously found itself drawn into controversy over questions of a “white saviour complex” in its work in African countries, though its defenders say it always works in partnership with local organisations and people.

Its annual televised Red Nose Day Appeal, featuring a panoply of pop stars, celebrities, sportsmen, musicians and ordinary viewers, has raised more than £1.4 billion since it was first held in 1988.

Mr Salama, who was appointed as chairman in June 2020, wrote on Twitter: “I admired Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry from afar before I joined and have even more respect and admiration and love for two wonderful human beings now that I’ve got to know them.

“All of which made last week particularly sad for me, stepping down early from my role and letting some people down in the process.”

He added: “But there are times in life when principles really matter more than any job. And last week was one of those times when management took an approach to an issue which I thought was profoundly wrong and which I could not live with.”

Sir Lenny Henry
Sir Lenny Henry co-founded Comic Relief in 1985 and it has been a regular fixture on the BBC since 1988 - bbc/Jake Turney

Among the demands of the “ceasefire now” petition signed by Comic Relief were calls for the freeing of all civilian hostages, especially children and the elderly.

It also calls for humanitarian convoys to be allowed to reach UN facilities, schools, hospitals, and health facilities in northern Gaza and for Israel to rescind its orders to civilians to leave northern Gaza.

The petition states: “We have witnessed unfathomable death and destruction in the Gaza Strip and Israel.”

It goes on to condemn the Israeli army for reportedly bombing civilians “as they attempted to flee or once they arrived in southern Gaza,” adding: “Neighbourhoods have been destroyed and turned into complete rubble. Palestinians in search of safety have nowhere to go.”

Comic Relief said in a statement on its website: “Eric decided to step down as chair of Comic Relief, and has brought forward the date of his departure from the previously announced retirement date of March 2024. Eric’s decision relates to a stance being taken on a public issue without any prior consultation with the board or Eric as chair.”

Comic Relief declined to say precisely what had led to Mr Salama’s resignation when asked by The Telegraph about the issue of Gaza.

A spokesman for the charity told the Telegraph: “Although we do not comment on internal matters relating to our staff or members of the board, we have announced that Eric has brought forward the date he is leaving.”

The charity added: “Comic Relief was formed in response to a humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, and we have joined over 700 charities, including many of the most prominent in the UK, in signing a petition about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Israel that is focused on the need to protect civilians and children on all sides of the conflict.”

Other charities that have signed the petition include Palestinian groups, as well as the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, Oxfam, the Baptist Union of Wales, and human rights and environmental campaigners.

High-profile role in City

Mr Salama was appointed chairman of Comic Relief following a glittering career in the City, where he rose to become the chairman of Verian Group, formerly Kantar, the consumer insight division of WPP. He has also been chief executive of Kantar and a non-executive director of the British Museum.

In a statement posted online, Comic Relief said Mr Salama’s position would be taken over by Tom Shropshire, one of its trustees.

Following his appointment as interim chairman, Mr Shropshire said: “On behalf of the board and team at Comic Relief, I would like to thank Eric for all he has done for the charity, including steering Comic Relief through the Covid-19 pandemic and helping to shape our current strategy.

“We wish Eric well in the future and look forward to having his continued support in the important work being done by Comic Relief and its partners.”

Mr Salama was approached for comment.

Accusations of bias

Comic Relief’s broadcast partner the BBC, is already facing accusations of bias in the Gaza-Israel conflict and Mr Salama’s sudden resignation comes after corporation staff accused it of double standards after they were told not to attend a march against anti-Semitism this weekend.

Staff working in current affairs and factual journalism who have sought permission to go to the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism march in London have been referred to impartiality rules.

According to the rules, editorial staff “should not participate in public demonstrations or gatherings about controversial issues”.

Jewish employees have argued that protesting against racism should not be regarded as a controversial or partisan issue, and that the BBC should not stand in their way.

A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC is clear that anti-Semitism is abhorrent. We have established guidance around marches, which explains that different considerations apply depending on what you do for the BBC.

“Corporately, we have not issued any staff communication on any specific march this weekend, but this does not mean discussions which consider the guidance have not taken place between colleagues.”