Society Diary: A post-mortem on the Batmanghelidjh car crash

16 Oct 2015 Voices

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder, Kids Company

Our weekly round-up of interesting and outlandish information, collected from the corners of the charity sector.

When writing about curious occurrences in the voluntary sector this week, it’s hard to look past the appearance of Camila Batmanghelidjh at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee, which was a bit like watching a super-slo-mo multi-car pile-up, taking place over three hours.

By the end of it you had the sense that the entire voluntary sector was watching, not so much with interest as with morbid curiosity, as Batmanghelidjh undertook one of the longest and most comprehensive pieces of oblivious self-destruction ever seen on a screen.

She kicked off bright and early, asserting that Kids Company didn’t just hand out cash willy-nilly. Except, obviously, to one bloke who’d been given £73,000, a bunch of other people on hundreds a week, one person who’d had their mortgage paid, and anyone else who turned up on a Friday afternoon to get some cash to fund their drug habit.

Then there was the assertion that children emitted fright hormones, that she was an expert in the emerging field of neurobiology but didn’t actually have any scientific qualifications of any sort, and that living in poverty caused genetic mutations in children.

This last had the rare effect of reducing the surrounding MPs to momentary stunned silence, as they tried to work out what the bejiggery hell she might be taking about, before, by common consent, they seemed to just shut the door on that and move on.

Not that there was a shortage of angles of attack for them to take.

There are, broadly, two types of Parliamentary committee hearings - those where MPs want to find something out, and those where they don’t want to know anything, really, and are just planning on perpetrating a lynching.

Bernard Jenkin, chair of the committee, made a point of saying that the committee was “not a show trial”. Diary would argue that this is rarely something which people bother to point out, except when about to begin a show trial.

The monumental cock-up that is the closure of Kids Company offered the MPs such a target-rich environment that they barely knew where to start. Financial incompetence? Deliberate malfeasance? Breaching legal agreements? Intimidation? Maladministration?

What was curious, though, was how long Batmanghelidjh held out, protected by the flak-jacket of obfuscation, by the impermeable armour of her self-esteem, and by an ability to revise what had just happened, almost every minute if necessary, which meant any blow actually landed on her was like punching fog.

Was she aware the money she gave out had been used to buy drugs? Meh, said Batmanghelidjh – albeit using 200 words to do so – showing a magisterial indifference to the idea.

Nor was that the only thing she was indifferent to. That included the questions she was asked, the MPs asking them, the truth, the things she’d said ten minutes ago, and the fact that she had singlehandedly, dramatically and without question caused the biggest charity insolvency in the UK since goodness knows when, possibly of all time.

“Did you hand out hundreds of pounds?” asked Jenkin.

No, we didn’t, says Batmanghelidjh. Well, yes we did, but we didn’t. Anyway, I can’t explain it without the context. I can’t refer to individual cases. Well I can but not now. Maybe later. Well, actually I won’t.

“You didn’t answer the question,” said Jenkin, not unreasonably.

Yes she had, she said, resolute that her version of reality was just as good as everyone else’s.

“The myth that we handed out cash in envelopes has evolved,” she told the committee at one point.

“But it’s not a myth, is it?” said Jenkin.

“No, it’s not a myth,” said Batmanghelidjh happily, and carried on, her point proved.

And so it went on. Question. Persiflage. Question. Filibustering. Question. Sesquipedalian circumlocution.

Paul Flynn, the legendary MP for Newport West, and by far the most dextrous wordsmith of the assembled representatives, was the first to crack in frustration.

“This is a spiel of psychobabble, a torrent of words, verbal ectoplasm,” he protested.

Meh, said Batmanghelidjh, using up another four or five minutes to do, and offering her own take on the John Lewis motto. Never knowingly understood.

A little while later Jenkin had also had enough. “Stop talking,” he said wearily, after one particularly roundabout piece of nonsense – a curious request to someone summoned to answer questions.

Meanwhile next to Camila sat Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, long-time chair of Kids Company, and increasingly irate second fiddle.

Yentob, unlike Batmanghelidjh, appeared to have gathered an inkling he might have screwed up in some way, and was growing increasingly worried by the fact. It was noticeable that as the hearing continued his body language changed, until by the end you sensed he would quite like to have picked up his chair and moved to the far end of the desk, as far away from Batmanghelidjh as possible.

Yentob made a stab at defending his record. Unfortunately he appeared to be leaning heavily on the fact that his charity was audited as a defence against potential wrongdoing. It’s difficult to know whether he thought this was optional, rather than compulsory, or that auditors actually checked whether you were effective at helping kids, rather than totting up what was in your accounts.

The reality is that if you’re behaving in a crazy way but remain solvent, then so long as your accounts show that you’re crazy and solvent – which it might be strongly argued they did – then your auditors will agree they represent a true and fair reflection, and you can go on your merry way.

Anyway, Yentob did actually manage a confession of sorts, that he might have spotted problems a bit sooner and acted a bit more decisively.

Batmanghelidjh, on the other hand, had no such qualms. She appeared a bit surprised, in fact, that this investigation was even necessary.

“On what basis have you decided that Kids Company is a failing charity?” she said.

“Because it’s gone bust,” Jenkin responded, not unreasonably.

Meh, said Batmanghelidjh. At length. For another two hours.


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