Until February 2015, when The Spectator published my article on Kids Company, not a single bad word about it or its chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh had appeared in the mainstream media.
This may seem surprising now, as the scale of the scandal surrounding the now-defunct charity unfolds, but for the best part of 20 years it was treated by journalists and politicians with a reverence which I believe it had not merited for a long time.
I first began looking into the charity in 2013. What struck me was the improbable statistics repeated ad infinitum in newspapers and on news programmes – notably those about the number of children and young people it claimed to ‘reach’ – when these were simply hard to believe on any logical basis.
The number of Kids Company clients on its books allegedly mushroomed from 13,500 in 2008 to 16,500 in 2010 before rising to a staggering ‘36,000’ in 2011. That figure of 36,000 was quoted obediently thereafter in every piece of charity literature and newspaper report which I read. The clear suggestion being made was that the number of children and young people using Kids Company’s services in London alone was greater than the total population of Newbury at the time. This seemed incredible.
Nevertheless, celebrities, artists, actors, authors and philanthropists flocked to the cause. Some gave, very publicly, huge sums. Coldplay alone donated an estimated £8 million.
Kids Company quickly attained star status in the charity world, in no small part thanks to the magnetic Miss Batmanghelidjh. It was, apparently, untouchable.
Yet behind the benevolent front, I soon learned, something darker had been going on. In 2013, a contact helped to arrange for me to meet some of the charity’s staff in a London pub. They insisted we sit in the quietest corner available, and spoke in hushed tones of serious financial irregularities and ‘serial exaggerations’ about its clients. They said it had spent vast sums of money from private donors and the public purse irresponsibly and believed that this ought to be exposed.
Strikingly, they were genuinely concerned about the consequences of speaking to me. One said: ‘What you don’t understand – what most people don’t understand – is that you do not cross Camila.’
Another said: ‘Camila is basically pretty impossible to work with. And she’s giving the charity sector a bad name. People need to realise that Kids Company is her personal empire. I am not aware of her having anything else in her life. I’m not aware of her having any friends with whom she can just go and have a cup of coffee. That is not healthy. The charity is her and she is the charity.’
Like all charities in Britain, Kids Company escaped public scrutiny via its exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, meaning the recollections of staff and clients were the best way to get an initial sense of how it operated.
Having scrutinised its accounts going back to the year 2000, I got hold of a lengthy (and very professionally produced) private report written by the charity for the government in 2013. Again, some of the statistics in it seemed wild and unbelievable. For example, did ministers really believe that the £4.25 million they were handing it every year was being used in part to help ‘400 high-risk pupils in one school alone’? Or did they not bother reading p.178 of this report?
I also met – quite by chance – Kids Company donor Joan Woolard. Joan, a widow, had sold her Lincolnshire house in 2013 and given the £200,000 proceeds to the charity having heard Miss Batmanghelidjh speak movingly on Radio 4 about the plight of the children she helped. Joan got in touch with the charity and later met its chief.
She sent her money by post in two cheques. But she told me she’d never been shown any proof as to how her donation was spent. Indeed, to this day she has seen no proof that satisfies her.
Batmanghelidjh accused Joan of being mentally ill after Joan began asking too many awkward questions. This seemed an astonishingly cold way to treat a septuagenarian donor now living in a council bungalow who had given Kids Company so much money. Apart from anything else, Joan Woolard is not mentally unwell.
This smear – masquerading as some kind of proper defence – was highly revealing of someone not prepared to answer straightforward questions. (Incidentally, I have more recently been accused of being a ‘fantasist’ by Batmanghelidjh for publishing stories about Kids Company, so I can see a pattern here.)
In 2014 I tried in vain to publish the material about the charity which I thought should be aired. Two national newspapers and a magazine rejected the piece. On one occasion, the story was spiked after the expensive City law firm Withers wrote to a newspaper. I got the sense that each publication was very interested in the topic. But criticising a high-profile children’s charity, and its equally high-profile chief executive, was considered unwise.
I was not alone: I now know that other journalists and newspapers wanted to publish articles about Kids Company in the past but came up against similar legal threats. You do not cross Camila.
So who did cross Camila — regardless of her impeccable connections and bizarre status as a secular saint? The answer, of course, was The Spectator.
While the charity’s closure is undoubtedly desperate news for those clients who relied on it, as it is for the hundreds of ex-employees who are now without a job, the inquest now under way should not stop until it reveals which individual or individuals were responsible for it being rendered insolvent after 19 years.
Any organisation which raises £150 million over two decades – including a large proportion of it from the public purse – deserves to be scrutinised to the highest degree if it has wound up in such sorry circumstances. Those who have acted as the charity’s trustees over the last 15 years, led in recent years by BBC executive Alan Yentob, will all have to give their side of the story. And so will Camila Batmanghelidjh.