Military charity chair criticised over handling of WhatsApp racism row

Charity

The chair of trustees at a military charity has been accused of causing “acrimony” during an ongoing racism storm surrounding a former senior figure at the organisation.

Tony Bolton, who also leads the executive committee of the Western Front Association, faces criticism over his handling of the allegations against another committee member, according to reports in The Times newspaper.

The WFA hosts events with branches all over the UK to commemorate the First World War.

The charity said it “unreservedly condemns racism and sexism” and had “comprehensively dealt with” the incidents described in The Times.

It also told Third Sector that, while it would co-operate willingly if there was any contact from the regulator, it had not been contacted by the Charity Commission and did not believe it was necessary to file a serious incident report.

The row centres on Jonathan d’Hooghe, a former member of the executive committee, who was accused of sharing racist and sexist messages with fellow members of the charity.

The WFA received complaints about dozens of d’Hooghe’s messages in July 2021, including abuse of black England footballers after the European Championship final, The Times said. It also quoted d’Hooghe defending the messages as “squaddie banter”.

D’Hooghe was removed from the executive committee two weeks after it received the complaints but he remained both a member of the charity and chair of his local branch for another 18 months.

Bolton acknowledged the difficulties caused for the charity in its 2021/22 annual report, writing: “There is no avoiding the reporting of a problem that has run throughout the year emanating from social media postings on a WhatsApp group identifiable with one of our branches.

“The executive committee acted decisively to remove one of its members following the reporting of unacceptable postings but has been unable to bring the matter to an acceptable conclusion as a result of perceived constraints within the [charity’s] constitution.

“At the end of this reporting period [June 2022] the executive committee were considering the appointment of an external independent mediator to help resolve the situation.”

D’Hooghe eventually left the WFA in October 2022, when his membership was revoked after an independent investigation.

A whistleblower told the paper that d’Hooghe then attended a talk given by Bolton at a WFA branch this February, at which Bolton allegedly told the whistleblower that most members “don’t give a shit” about the racism row.

The whistleblower later emailed Bolton to say the dispute was a “running sore” for the charity that would cause “division and acrimony” inside the WFA.

A spokesperson for the charity said: “This charity exists to remember and to educate the public about the First World War.

“It is not within our power to prevent any member of the public from attending our meetings. This includes former members of the WFA.

“The association has comprehensively dealt with the issues that were raised by Mr Gibson with respect to the WhatsApp group.

“Sadly, it appears that there is ongoing personal animosity between certain individuals connected to the Lincoln branch and it is beyond the power of the executive committee of the WFA to resolve such differences. The executive committee has no wish to exacerbate this disagreement.”

They added: “This association unreservedly condemns racism and sexism, evidenced by our stated policies and the action taken against the former chairman of the Lincoln Branch.

“There are, however, practical limits to what we can do if people fall out with each other. We are a First World War charity run by volunteers, not an arbitration service.”

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