To her supporters, Camila Batmanghelidjh is a deeply caring woman whose charity Kids Company was cruelly extinguished last summer thanks to unfair press speculation about its finances which later turned into a fully-blown media witch-hunt.
To those of us who know our way around the Kids Company story, Camila Batmanghelidjh is certainly deeply caring, but the person she appears to care most deeply about is herself. Exhibit A: Lynn Alleway’s fly-on-the-wall film (‘Camila’s Kids Company: the Inside Story’) broadcast on BBC1 last night.
In it, Batmanghelidjh didn’t bother to mask her love for the camera. She lapped up the attention Alleway showed her, never happier than when providing a running commentary on events or when supplying highly questionable justifications for her charity’s outlandish spending. Even in the face of looming financial disaster she was prone to compulsive bursts of excited laughter inspired, inevitably, by her own remarks and observations. In one scene she nonchalantly painted her nails while half-helping to draft a press statement about why Kids Company funds had been used to pay her chauffeur’s children’s school fees – then let slip that she had paid a second driver a five-figure salary, a fact her PR man Laurence Guinness wanted to keep under the radar. And her supporters wonder why Kids Company, which claimed to help the poor and disadvantaged, ran out of money.
Alleway’s film seems to have been made for one simple reason: post-February 2015 Batmanghelidjh needed some positive PR. Questions about how Kids Company operated, about how many genuinely needy people were on its books, and about how it spent its multi-million pound government funding had been raised by me in The Spectator that month. Interest from other journalists subsequently developed. No newspaper or magazine had ever publicly challenged Kids Company before, and Batmanghelidjh clearly felt uncomfortable about this scrutiny. Her project, until then one of the best-known charities in Britain, had sprung a leak and she knew she had to act quickly to repair the damage.
So it was that in June 2015 Alleway was offered the chance to make the film shown last night. This was a follow-up to Alleway’s 2005 Kids Company BBC documentary ‘Tough Kids – Tough Love’ filmed in the days when Batmanghelidjh wore slightly more sombre clothes and had a lower profile. (Alleway was a BBC staff producer at that time and was allowed to devote a year to the project. Let nobody say the BBC has not been a longstanding supporter of Kids Company itself).
Yet as her new film showed, the charity had changed significantly in the intervening decade. Thanks to celebrity backing from JK Rowling, Richard Branson, Coldplay and Jemima Khan among others, plus more than £40 million of taxpayers’ money from successive Labour and Tory governments, it had grown into a many-headed beast with annual revenues of £23 million, of which more than two-thirds went on staff wages. This fostered a palpable sense of entitlement. Batmanghelidjh believed she had a right to ever greater sums of public money to carry out her self-appointed duties. By force of personality she persuaded government ministers to give in to her demands. These so-called guardians of the public purse did just that, without asking any hard questions.
It seems Alleway’s documentary was originally intended to be a helpful portrait of Batmanghelidjh and her charity, but events saw to it that a far greater prize was on offer if the film-maker wanted it: Alleway was given a golden opportunity to record the charity as it dissolved, and to find out why.
Yet that chance was largely squandered. She asked none of the key questions about how the charity was really run, did not bother to get under the skin of the story, and instead recorded a lot of upset people wringing their hands at the charity’s closure as an emotive piano soundtrack played in the background. It may have made an effective piece of television, but it got nowhere near the truth. For instance, no questions were asked about Batmanghelidjh’s apparent lack of formal clinical or medical qualifications. Instead, she was described in the film as a ‘psychotherapist’. Neither did the programme tackle the ludicrous myth that Kids Company had 36,000 ‘clients’ who used its services.
There were some facts that couldn’t be ignored by Alleway, though, one of which came from further investigation into the charity which I did last summer and resulted in a run of stories published in the Mail on Sunday. Rather ungenerously, Alleway did not fully credit the newspaper, even though her film depended on it. One of these stories was that Kids Company was spending £5,000 per month renting a Grade II listed house in north London complete with its own swimming pool reserved exclusively for Batmanghelidjh’s use. Alleway questioned Batmanghelidjh about this unnecessary outgoing. Sounding upset and deceived, Alleway sought an explanation from Batmanghelidjh. The charity chief’s face dropped. For a few seconds it looked as though she was going to make an admission. She didn’t. Instead, she tried to justify it and laughed it off. And since Alleway didn’t bother asking anymore awkward questions, that was that.
Alleway also had the sense to highlight that Kids Company’s chairman of trustees – the man who should have monitored every item of expenditure – was Alan Yentob. He refused to take part in Alleway’s film, presumably realising how he might come to be haunted by any word he said on the record about the fiasco. At the end of her film Alleway noted that in December Yentob resigned his executive post at the BBC as a result of the scandal. What she failed to add is that Yentob remains on the BBC payroll with what is thought to be a six-figure salary and control of a seven-figure commissioning budget. His lame duck boss, Tony Hall, thinks this arrangement is perfectly acceptable.
Last week the Metropolitan Police dropped an inquiry into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Kids Company. Alleway noted this in her film but, crucially, failed to explain why the Met abandoned the investigation. They did so because officers found ‘no evidence of criminality within the 32 reports which would reach the threshold to justify a referral to the Crown Prosecution Service.’ In other words, those stories officers heard would not clear the CPS bar. This is not the same as officers finding no evidence at all, however. Did the police actually speak to every Kids Company whistleblower with a story to tell?
Alleway’s unsatisfactory account should not cloud the hard work done last summer by print journalists and the BBC’s Newsnight programme in uncovering the truth about Kids Company. Nor should people think that it is an end of the Kids Company story. The Charity Commission is deep into its own investigation into Batmanghelidjh, Yentob, and how they ran the organisation, and I am also working on a new story about Kids Company. I believe the worst is yet to come.