THE director and co-founder of the popular and world-renowned Hay Festival has resigned following an investigation into accusations of bullying.

Peter Florence, who was suspended last October following the accusation by a staff member, resigned with immediate effect last Thursday, July 29, after the festival’s board of directors “unanimously endorsed” the findings of an independent investigation and panel review that upheld the internal complaint – and which found Mr Florence’s actions amounted to gross misconduct.

Florence’s departure comes amid a turbulent period for the esteemed arts and literary festival – which has been held online for the last two years due to the coronavirus pandemic. The bullying accusation also came shortly after a female festival curator alleged that she was sexually assaulted in February 2020 by a UAE government minister while on a visit to Abu Dhabi.

A statement from Hay Festival’s board of directors dated August 1 said: “On Thursday, July 29, the Hay Festival board unanimously endorsed the findings of an independent investigation and panel review that upheld an internal complaint against Hay Festival co-founder and director Peter Florence, backed by more than half of the Welsh festival team.

“In line with the festival's disciplinary procedure and bullying and harassment procedure, it was found that Mr Florence's actions amounted to gross misconduct.

“This decision followed a thorough and extensive process, which considered substantial supporting evidence. As the board gathered to conclude the internal process, Mr Florence resigned with immediate effect. The board will now be seeking new leadership for the world-renowned non-profit organisation.”

Since Mr Florence’s suspension last year, finance director Tania Hudson has led the team, running digital events in December and May.

Mr Florence’s departure comes after a period of expansion, with outposts set up in countries including Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. Over decades, the festival has partnered with the Guardian, Sunday Times, Telegraph and Sky Arts. Hay Festival International will continue to be run by director Cristina Fuentes La Roche.

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“Mr Florence was suspended last October following the panel’s review of the grievance complaints and has been signed off sick since then,” the statement continued.

“Finance director and interim CEO Tania Hudson has led the UK team over the past 10 months, delivering successful digital events in December and May, while Hay Festival international director Cristina Fuentes continues to run Hay Festival events internationally.

“Thanks to the dedication and commitment of our teams, artists, friends, Haymakers and supporters in Wales and around the world, our hybrid festival plans continue unchanged for the next 12 months as we bring writers and readers together in sustainable events across Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Hay-on-Wye.”

In a statement of his own, Mr Florence hit out at the board, saying: “I consider that my role had become untenable due to the conduct of the board and its insistence on holding a disciplinary hearing in my absence whilst I was off sick following a breakdown.

“I am incredibly proud of the achievements of the Hay festival over the past 35 years and hope that it continues to go from strength to strength. I do not wish to comment further at this time and continue to take legal advice.”

Since its founding in 1988 by Mr Florence and his parents Rhoda and Norman, the festival has hosted many top names in world literature, from Mario Vargas Llosa and Jung Chang to Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel, while former US President Bill Clinton famously called it a “Woodstock of the mind”.

Mr Florence was made a CBE in 2018 for services to literature and charity, and he chaired the jury of the 2019 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The reputation of the festival, which in normal times runs over 10 days in May and June, was seriously tarnished last autumn following Caitlin McNamara’s allegations against Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, a member of a prominent UAE family.

Al Nahyan denied the allegations and the Crown Prosecution Service announced in October it could not bring charges against the UAE government minister because the alleged offence happened abroad.

Ms McNamara, then 32 and who had waived her right to anonymity, was visiting the Middle East nation for discussions about holding Hay's first event in the region. She alleged she was attacked by Al Nahyan on a private island in February.

The festival's chair, Caroline Michel, said the offshoot event promoting freedom of speech and women’s empowerment would not be returning to Abu Dhabi, while some of the world’s biggest NGOs and bestselling authors – including Stephen Fry and Noam Chomsky – signed a letter condemning abuse of free speech in Abu Dhabi.