The Media Column: Camila Batmanghelidjh is shooting the messengers who helped her raise millions

For too long, too many journalists preferred to speak to the charity’s colourful founder than do some original reporting on Britain’s poorest children

Ian Burrell
Sunday 09 August 2015 22:00 BST
Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila Batmanghelidjh

As the roof caved in on Kids Company last week, its flamboyant founder blamed the charity’s demise on “rumour-mongering civil servants, ill-spirited ministers and the media”. In a round of interviews, Camila Batmanghelidjh said she’d become “a football for the media” and been subjected to “trial by media”.

These were strange words for someone who had, until recently, been lionised by journalists of all political hues, her status elevated to that of a British Mother Teresa – providing a platform from which she skilfully harvested huge financial contributions from public and private sources.

If the media did not exactly make Kids Company, it at least created its founder’s immense public profile; a larger-than-life personality in a technicolour dreamcoat, her input was seen as essential to any debate on child poverty.

“Build them up, then knock them down,” is said to be a trait of the British in general, and their fickle media in particular. On this occasion, Batmanghelidjh’s sideswipe at an easy, amorphous target was unconvincing.

Blaming the media has long been a convenient explanation for any woe. Today, in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry, it’s a potent message in attracting public sympathy, evoking thoughts of dark forces.

An appraisal of the history of the reporting of Batmanghelidjh’s problems does not support her inference that it was driven by a political agenda, or a conspiracy hatched with civil servants. The first journalist to sound alarm bells was Harriet Sergeant, who spent time with Kids Company researching a think-tank report, and in 2012 wrote a book, Among the Hoods. She questioned the number of children whom Kids Company claimed to be helping, although she didn’t name the charity because she admired the way Batmanghelidjh kept the issue of deprived children in the public eye.

Then Miles Goslett, a freelance journalist who won great credit for his work on the Jimmy Savile scandal, ran a piece in The Oldie in 2014. It asked questions of Kids Company’s use of a £200,000 donation from a widow, Joan Woolard. Batmanghelidjh wrote to The Oldie’s then editor, Richard Ingrams, demanding he “repair” the “incredibly damaging narrative” – an action that spurred Goslett on.

His next piece, based partly on a meeting with disaffected members of the charity’s staff, was rejected by two newspapers and a magazine. He believes this was linked to the personal connections of Batmanghelidjh, who is said to have “mesmerised” David Cameron and won a total of £37m in public funding for her charity.

In February this year, The Spectator published Goslett’s piece, “The Trouble with Kids Company”. It alleged that the charity’s statistic of having 36,000 clients was inflated by including parents and school staff. Goslett concluded that it “now acts as a drain on well-meaning donations that might otherwise go to better causes”.

Both Goslett and Sergeant are aligned to publications on the political right. But then Batmanghelidjh, despite her background in social care, has rightist credentials. Her theories on the cycle of deprivation have been compared with those of Thatcherite politician Keith Joseph. She gave parliamentary evidence in 2006 claiming black mothers were prone to levels of “rejection and cruelty” towards their men and boys.

And for all the complaints about the media, the academic Peter Beresford, writing in The Guardian, said he had shared a stage with Batmanghelidjh and “she told me about the high priority she gave to being in close touch with the press and the media”. Not only was the charity’s founder able to call editors directly, she had an extraordinarily well-connected chairman in Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC. Kids Company mopped up precious media coverage to the detriment of other charities, and the muted support for the beleaguered Batmanghelidjh from her own sector has been noticeable.

The media’s love affair with Kids Company has soured. At the news site, reporter Alan White had held suspicions about the charity’s management since 2008, when he was researching London gangs. At BBC Newsnight, policy editor Chris Cook arrived from the Financial Times last year with his own notes on the London charity. The pair teamed up.

Their first investigation last month revealed that the Cabinet Office was withholding funding from Kids Company unless Batmanghelidjh stepped down as head. She promptly went on a defensive media blitz. But another Newsnight-Buzzfeed story reported that the Metropolitan Police’s Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse unit was probing allegations of criminal activity on the charity’s premises. This was the revelation that broke the back of an organisation that for 19 years had done – by the estimation of even its harshest critics – considerable good work in helping some of Britain’s most vulnerable children.

Newsnight executives thought hard about the implications of its reports for the charity and its young clients. Many who sympathise with Batmanghelidjh’s good intentions will think the end of Kids Company is a disproportionate outcome for what are – with the most serious accusations – unproven allegations.

Yentob insisted, in a show of defiance on Channel 4 News, that “there is not financial mismanagement” at Kids Company and that allegations against it were disgraceful. He admitted to making a high-level call to Newsnight and turning up at the offices of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme before 8am, when Batmanghelidjh was being interviewed. But he also pointed out, reasonably, that the BBC’s coverage showed he had no control over its journalism.

It was Batmanghelidjh’s decision to pull the plug. As someone who assiduously courted media attention, she must have realised she would attract scrutiny. Perhaps this was why Kids Company employed the expensive global law firm Withers to respond to journalists who didn’t resort to the usual fawning. But despite the enormous donations that Kids Company received, the charity hadn’t put in place the financial reserves to weather a media storm and its impact on funding.

The outcome of the official investigations now under way will reveal the seriousness of Kids Company’s problems. Batmanghelidjh is seeking to blame a media that is still conscious of accusations that it had turned a blind eye to hacking, to Savile and to the banking crisis. For too long, too many journalists preferred to speak to the charity’s colourful founder than do some original reporting on Britain’s poorest children – and missed a story right under their noses.

It’s the season of the ‘Super Injunction’

The football season is back and so is the so-called “Super Injunction”, something that was thought to have ended with the spectacular legal own goal scored by Ryan Giggs four years ago. The Sun on Sunday’s attempts to publish juicy details of a celebrity’s affair with a married sportsman have been thwarted by the High Court.

The tabloid’s daily sister paper ran a splash on Thursday: “Sex Rat Sports Star Gags The Sun”, complete with the silhouettes we recall from the Giggs injunction in 2011, which backfired as he was identified online as a serial love cheat.

The Sun on Sunday is frustrated at losing a racy scoop to follow its recent expose of Lord Sewel snorting cocaine from the breasts of a prostitute, while media lawyer Mark Stephens has spoken of a “swingers’ charter”, and freedom of speech campaigners will worry that injunctions proliferate.

The Sun’s News UK stablemate The Times saw a religious story, quoting Mrs Justice Laing’s observation that “few people, other than adherents to strict religious codes, could rationally consider” that there was a “public interest” in exposing the affair.

The Sun on Sunday, which is arguing that very thing, would not normally be considered a religious text. It often devotes the Sabbath to the ritual of printing pictures of famous figures with their clothes off. But perhaps the judge is right and, when this injunction inevitably fails, righteous worshippers will rush from Sunday prayers for an eyeful of the soaraway red top.

‘Bake Off’ ratings relief for BBC

News that the sixth edition of The Great British Bake Off achieved record first night ratings will be a relief to BBC Worldwide which, as the cash-strapped organisation’s commercial arm, is under pressure to generate more funds.

The BBC2 show pulled an opening audience of 9.3 million, up from 7.2 million last year, amid reports of possible insider betting over this year’s winner. I’m surprised Ladbrokes, which has now closed its book, offered odds on a pre-recorded TV contest when plenty must know the outcome.

The story will have added to the hype but – with the future success of the cash cow Top Gear now subject to some doubt – BBC Worldwide must protect the reputation of one of its most valuable brands.

The Great British Bake Off has spawned 20 international versions but the original show, presented by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, remains the money-spinning flagship with viewers in almost 200 countries.

Twitter: @iburrell

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