Hay Festival's co-founder quits after bullying claims are upheld

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Peter Florence confirmed to The Telegraph that he had he resigned from his position on July 29 with immediate effect. - Getty Images Europe
Peter Florence confirmed to The Telegraph that he had he resigned from his position on July 29 with immediate effect. - Getty Images Europe

The co-founder of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts has resigned after an independent investigation upheld a complaint of bullying against him that amounted to “gross misconduct”.

Peter Florence, 56, who founded the festival in 1988 with his parents, was suspended last October after a staff member accused him of bullying. The Telegraph has confirmed he has been signed off sick since his suspension.

In an email to colleagues following the findings of the investigation, which were endorsed by the board unanimously last Thursday and first reported by The Observer, Mr Florence said he had had a “breakdown”.

“I consider that my role had become untenable due to the conduct of the board and its insistence on holding a disciplinary hearing in my absence whilst I was off sick following a breakdown,” Mr Florence told The Telegraph in a statement.

His departure after more than three decades at the helm of the festival, which is held every summer in Hay-on-Wye, raised questions about the future running of the organisation.

But sources within it have dismissed suggestions that the festival is now in disarray after a successful year running digital events in which they reached more than two million people worldwide.

The group’s finance director, Tania Hudson, has acted as interim CEO for the past 10 months and the board stressed the festival would “continue unchanged”. Cristina Fuentes also continues to run Hay Festival events internationally.

The board’s statement read: "On Thursday 29 July, the Hay Festival board unanimously endorsed the findings of an independent investigation and panel review that upheld an internal complaint against Hay Festival co-founder and director Peter Florence, backed by more than half of the Welsh festival team.

“In line with the festival's Disciplinary Procedure and Bullying & Harassment Procedure, it was found that Mr Florence's actions amounted to gross misconduct.”

It went on to add that the decision followed a “thorough and extensive process” and considered “substantial supporting evidence”.

The Telegraph understands a “considerable number” of staff backed the original complaint of bullying against Mr Florence, the details of which have not been disclosed.

Following the accusation, the board commissioned an independent investigation. This was followed by an independent panel review which included two employment lawyers. Mr Florence participated in both stages, it is understood.

He was subsequently suspended in October 2020 and the board then wrote to him to set up a disciplinary hearing. But sources said they waited nine months for engagement from Mr Florence to arrange the hearing.

It is understood after this period the board decided the hearing must go ahead “for the sake of the business”, but as they were in the process of deciding whether or not to hold it Mr Florence submitted his resignation.

“As the board gathered to conclude the internal process, Mr Florence resigned with immediate effect. The board will now be seeking new leadership for the world-renowned non-profit organisation,” the official statement said.

Mr Florence confirmed to The Telegraph that he had he resigned from his position on July 29 with immediate effect.

"I am incredibly proud of the achievements of the Hay Festival over the last 35 years and hope that it continues to go from strength to strength," he said.

"I do not wish to comment further at this time and continue to take legal advice."

It comes after the festival’s curator was allegedly assaulted by a sheikh in Abu Dhabi in February last year.

Caitlin McNamara, 32, claimed that Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, 69, had kissed and groped her at a meeting to discuss the organisation’s first literary festival in Abu Dhabi.

The sheikh denied the allegations. Schillings, the London-based libel lawyers, said at the time: "Our client is surprised and saddened by this allegation, which arrives eight months after the alleged incident and via a national newspaper. The account is denied."

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