Hay Festival’s Difficult Autumn: Two Separate Matters, UK and UAE

In News by Porter Anderson

In two unresolved cases that have come to light recently, the highly regarded Hay Festival finds itself dealing with sensitive allegations from within its ranks.

Wole Soyinka in an onstage interview at the inaugural Hay Festival Abu Dhabi in February 2020. Image: Hay Festival

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Challenging Developments
From many vantage points, no international literary festival program has appeared to be more successful and respected than the 32-year-old Welsh-born Hay Festival.

With its eponymous Hay-on-Wye festival each spring in Wales and its widening orbit of international satellite events, the program has appeared to go from strength to strength on its formula of onstage conversation, featuring not only literary figures but also newsmakers from the wider worlds of science, industry, diplomacy, politics, and the arts, all in discussions about their work. Framed by musical events and some other side attractions, the company’s brand of intellectually ambitious programming has developed a strong following and an unusually high recognition level in many world markets.

If anything, the Hay was cheered during the spring for serving out some 490,000 streams in it digital program, May 21 to 31, with viewers in 69 nations. The program raised £95,786 (US$118,352) with a crowdfunding campaign and just over £100,000 (US$123,608) offline, as well. And last month, the Hay Festival Segovia became one of the highest profile book related events to stage a hybrid event with both physical and digital elements in Spain, even as that market’s coronavirus COVID-19 numbers were climbing.

In recent days, however, news of challenging headwinds has put an abrupt pall over the usually sunny energy of the Hay.

Two separate concerns have emerged.

A Staff ‘Grievance Procedure’

Peter Florence

The Hay’s co-founding director Peter Florence, long the main face of the festival, has been suspended this month, following a “grievance procedure” initiated by a staffer. While the Hay management has been carefully circumspect in comments about the situation, it’s understood that the complaint involves an accusation of bullying of some kind.

There has been no word from Florence on the matter. Hay officials have said that after he was suspended on October 1 pending an investigation into the complaint.

Florence, according to festival chair Caroline Michel, has since called in sick, complicating the effort to close the matter.

At Publishing Perspectives request, the Hay offices provided a short statement about the Florence situation. This is from Caroline Michel, the chair of Hay Festival.

Carolyn Michel

“Peter Florence was suspended on October 1 pending the outcome of a grievance procedure initiated by one of our staff. He has since been signed off sick, which has delayed the conclusion of that process.

“Tania Hudson has been appointed interim CEO to lead the festival team during this period alongside international director Cristina Fuentes La Roche. The Hay Festival board would like to reassure all supporters and sponsors that the festival is in good hands.

“We are not at liberty to offer any further comment on personnel issues until this matter is resolved.”

In response to our inquiries today (October 29), a spokesman for the Hay says, “Of course, it was not our wish to inform anybody of this process until the matter was resolved. In all of this, our committed teams in Wales, Colombia, Mexico, Spain and Peru continue moving forward with our mission to bring writers and readers together to reimagine the world.”
Allegations of Sexual Assault

In the other situation—and this is unrelated to the Florence affair—Caitlin McNamara, who curated the Hay’s first Abu Dhabi festival, held in late February, has been interviewed by London’s Sunday Times about what she maintains was a serious sexual assault made against her on February 14 by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s minister of tolerance.

Asked by the Associated Press for comment, UK attorneys for Sheikh Nahyan issued a denial, saying, “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.”

Again, it is Carolyn Michel, the Hay’s chair, who has made the official statement for the festival:

“What happened to our colleague and friend Caitlin McNamara in Abu Dhabi last February was an appalling violation and a hideous abuse of trust and position. Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan made a mockery of his ministerial responsibilities and tragically undermined this government’s attempt to work with Hay Festival to promote free speech and female empowerment.

“We continue to support Caitlin in seeking legal redress for this attack and we urge our friends and partners in the UAE to reflect on the behavior of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and send a clear signal to the world that such behavior will not be tolerated. Hay Festival will not be returning to Abu Dhabi while he remains in position.”

McNamara’s complaints were published in the Sunday Times on October 16. She details being taken to an island villa to meet with the sheikh in what she assumed would be a discussion about the festival. She states that she instead was assaulted.

In response to inquiries from The Bookseller, as Benedicte Page writes, the Hay administration says it moved quickly to help McNamara leave Abu Dhabi, with Peter Florence and Michel extending her contract to cover any leave required and introducing her to Hay vice-president Baroness Helena Kennedy, who has assisted in obtaining legal services for McNamara in London without charge.

Part of the concern surrounds the question of the Abu Dhabi festival having gone forward. It seems that McNamara wanted that, so that the work of developing the festival wouldn’t be lost, but her account in Sunday Times includes references to her feeling conflicted about this and worrying that her situation was being covered up. “I wanted people [at the festival] to know,” she says in that account.

The issue remains unresolved on many fronts.


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Hay Festival is here, and more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.