The scandal that has been haunting the Hay Festival for months is gripping the future of one of the most prestigious literary events in the world, awarded last year with the Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities together with the FIL of Guadalajara. The controversial suspension of its director and co-founder, Peter Florence, last October due to a complaint of workplace harassment has ended with the resignation of the creator, along with his parents, from a meeting described by Bill Clinton as the “Woodstock of the mind”. that was born in 1988 in the British town of Hay-on-Wye (Wales region) and that has been expanding with ramifications in several countries, including Spain. Florence’s departure, precipitated by the unanimous support of the event’s board of directors for a report that accepted the accusation, exacerbates the crisis of a festival that, after 32 years as the focus of attention of the literary universe, ran into its dose horribilis.
The risk now is that this year will be worse than the previous one, as the departure of Florence could cause a chain reaction that threatens the survival of an event that was already in the trigger due to the treatment of its workers and its flirtation with regimes with a questionable democratic record. However, sources from the board of directors have assured this newspaper that the continuity of the festival is not in danger, because “its structure is stronger than ever and in the coming months new editions will be held in several countries.”
The board concluded its diagnosis on the accusation on Thursday and this weekend the promoter of the festival announced his sudden resignation. According to an internal note to which he had access The Observer, the Sunday version of the British newspaper The Guardian, Florence considered his continuity “unsustainable” due to the “conduct of the board and his insistence on calling a disciplinary hearing” in his absence. The former director had been out of the game since October, when the complaint of a member of the staff caused not only that he was removed from day to day, but also a nervous breakdown that has kept him on sick leave since then.
His decision, immediately, has caused the stupor of the executive committee, but the confusion has not affected his opinion on the complaint, unanimously supported after a “broad and detailed process, which analyzed substantial evidence” against Florence. In fact, the board is already seeking replacement, as CFO Tania Hudson’s leadership during the months of the director’s suspension was only temporary.
The battle, however, is not over for Florence, who is seeking legal advice and, if she declares war, could deliver the final blow to the project she started with her family in 1988. The pandemic has prevented the face-to-face celebration of the events. The last two editions in the picturesque Welsh city where he was born, where some of the world’s most renowned feathers have gathered for ten days every spring since 1988. The organization did not give in to the coronavirus and last year gave shape to a virtual meeting with more than 80 events for which it gathered a panel of exceptional guests, but Florence himself acknowledged that the spirit of the festival is based on “the opposite of social distance ”, because beyond the lucrative offer that it represents for the publishing sector, Hay is, above all, a space for exchanging ideas, in which authors have the opportunity to interact with their readers, a focus for debate and the opportunity to discover new promises of the letters.
However, turning the reverse into a virtue, the promoters activated a fundraising campaign that raised more than 110,000 euros and even Florence admitted that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to gather in person the names that came together through the screen. The success has meant that this spring, still with the restrictions due to the pandemic in force, it was organized again in the same format.
But Hay also runs the risk of dying of success. In recent years, it had achieved a significant expansion that generated franchises in Spain, Colombia or Mexico, under the leadership of the director of the international division, Cristina Fuentes La Roche, but it also reached more controversial markets. The raid into the United Arab Emirates in February 2020 sparked a concerted protest involving, among others, PEN America, part of the International Writers Association, or British actor and author Stephen Fry, who questioned the record of the Arab country. on freedom of expression and the treatment of political prisoners.
But the worst thing about that premiere was that, just days before Florence’s suspension, the commissioner in Abu Dhabi, Caitlin McNamara, denounced a case of sexual abuse by the Minister of Tolerance of the Government of the emirate, Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, member of one of the most influential families in the region. Although the incident came to light in October, McNamara had already reported it when it took place, which did not prevent the event from moving forward, with Al Nahyan’s own assistance as representative of an executive who had contributed a significant financial contribution.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.