Hay Festival bows to pressure and cuts ties with sponsors over Israel links

Charlotte Church
Charlotte Church became the latest speaker to pull out of the event in protest at its relationship with Baillie Gifford - Carl Court/Getty Images

The Hay Festival has ended its sponsorship deal with investment firm Baillie Gifford following a boycott by celebrities including Charlotte Church and Nish Kumar over the bank’s links to Israel.

Church became the latest speaker to pull out of the event in protest at its relationship with Baillie Gifford, which invests in companies with links to Israel’s defence, technology and cybersecurity industries.

The singer told organisers in a public statement: “Your art festival is not more important than the lives of Palestinian children.”

Other speakers and performers who have withdrawn include Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, and Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer.

As the festival in Hay-on-Wye entered its second day, and amid fears that more speakers would cancel their appearances, organisers moved to end the row.

Julie Finch, the chief executive of Hay Festival Global, said: “In light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw, we have taken the decision to suspend our sponsorship from Baillie Gifford.

“Our first priority is to our audience and our artists. Above all else, we must preserve the freedom of our stages and spaces for open debate and discussion, where audiences can hear a range of perspectives.

“Hay Festival Global is a charity. We are grateful to all those artists, partners and audiences who engage and contribute to the conversation, on stage and off.”

Nish Kumar
Kumar said 'pulling out of Hay was the right decision for me' - Alan Chapman/Dave Benett/Getty Images

The campaign against Baillie Gifford has been run by Fossil Free Books, a group which claims that the firm has nearly £10 billion invested in companies with links to Israel’s defence, tech and cybersecurity industries.

More than 600 writers and publishing industry professionals have signed a statement by the group which demands Baillie Gifford “divest from the fossil fuel industry and from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide”.

There has been no sign of protest at the festival. It remains to be seen whether Church will now honour her booking to appear on Saturday night.

In a statement released before Hay pulled the plug, Church said: “Due to the continuing sponsorship of the festival by asset manager Baillie Gifford, I will be boycotting and not attending in solidarity with the people of Palestine and in protest of the artwashing and greenwashing that is apparent in this sponsorship.” She also referred to Israeli occupation and the “genocide” of Palestinians.

“The Hay Festival is one of the most beloved liberal arts festivals in the UK. It exists because artists give in their energy. In 2024, for Hay Festival to platform leading environmentalists and climate justice campaigners while accepting cash that has been generated in the fossil fuel industry, is a rank hypocrisy, and a betrayal of those contributors and of all the children whose futures will be radically different because of investors like Baillie Gifford.

“This is not a game of checks and balances. Your art festival is not more important than the lives of Palestinian children and the future of healthy ecosystems on earth,” she said.

Church was scheduled to discuss her work as a campaigner for climate action, economic equity, integrated education and political accountability, plus the “wellness” retreat she runs in rural Wales.

‘Dirty money’

She urged anyone who had planned to attend her talk to donate money to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

“We are at a critical stage in the world where we must demand transparency, accountability and consequences for those profiting from the destruction of life on earth,” Church said.

“If the art world continues to take this dirty money, we all become complicit. I’m thankful to the wonderful network of humans who for decades have done and continue to do so much deep research to root out and shine a light on these dishonest partnerships.”

In February, the former child star was criticised for leading a choir in a rendition of “from the river to the sea” during a pro-Palestinian charity concert in Caerphilly, South Wales.

She later insisted: “If you know the history of it all, [it is] not an antisemitic chant calling for the obliteration of Israel. It is calling for the peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians.”

Dawn Butler was one of the first to pull out of the Hay Festival, saying that Baillie Gifford was “involved directly or indirectly in technology and arms in Israel”.

Kumar, who was due to perform a stand-up gig, then announced: “Sad to say that I will be pulling out of Hay to support this campaign. Love the festival and the people that work in it, but this was the right decision for me.”

Baillie Gifford sponsors several literary festivals. Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, pulled out of the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, claiming that the investment firm was attaching itself to cultural events to “greenwash” its reputation.

The company has been approached for comment about the Hay decision.

Previously, a spokesperson said that only two per cent of clients’ money was invested in companies with business related to fossil fuels.

On the subject of Israel, it said that “our clients set the parameters and determine what to exclude or divest. We are not in a position to make exclusions of that nature based on our own ethical judgments, or in response to pressure from outside groups.”