Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Normal British bureaucratic bungling blamed on "racism"

I think the ladies deserve compensation for their treatment but there have been plenty of cases of whites getting similar treatment from immobile and wasteful bureaucracies. Putting someone on nil duties is a standard bureaucratic way of getting that person to resign

The Home Office has been branded "one of Britain's least impressive managements" after an employment tribunal ruled that two interpreters were subjected to years of sexual and racial discrimination. The department now faces a bill of up to 2.3 million pounds to compensate the two women, who claimed they would have been treated differently if they had been white men.

The tribunal found that they suffered systematic discrimination because of the procrastination of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, and accused more than 100 human resource staff of mismanagement. The attack came at a hearing in London yesterday into the claims of Marti Khan, 48, who is fluent in various Indian languages, and Odette King, 57, who speaks Farsi. Both worked in Terminal 3 at Heathrow but also travelled to other airports to translate for new arrivals and at detention centres.

The tribunal found that the women had been effectively redundant since 1990, when the Home Office outsourced interpreting to freelances. Officials failed to reassign them to other roles and though they were contracted to work 41 hours a week, they were paid to do nothing or asked to carry out basic clerical duties. They could have remained in that position until retirement had they not complained to managers. Their complaints about the lack of work and that freelances were paid more were ignored by senior officials. They were signed off sick and placed on paid leave but after writing to Charles Clarke, then the Home Secretary, they were dismissed from their 25,000-a-year jobs.

Jeremy McMullen, tribunal judge, ruled that the women were unfairly dismissed and condemned their treatment by the directorate, which John Reid, the Home Secretary, branded "not fit for purpose" last year. The judge said: "What happens when one of Britain's least impressive managements, by its sole consistent attitude of procrastination, drives two long-service Asian women to become uncooperative and dismissive? The answer is systemic race and sex discrimination against them and dismissals unfair according to every tenet in the canon."

Mrs Khan, of Heston, West London, is claiming 970,000 in compensation, including 682,000 for loss of her career, 60,000 for injury to feelings and 30,000 aggravated damages. Mrs King, of Barnes, southwest London, is seeking 550,000, including 302,000 for the loss of her career. Imtiaz Aziz, their lawyer, said the panel could increase any award by 50 per cent to reflect the Home Office's breach of statutory grievance procedures. Both women are also seeking an order that the Home Office find them jobs, although this would cut the compensation.

Mrs King said after the hearing: "This has never been about money for either of us and we feel vindicated by the judge's damning ruling. We just want to have jobs in the Home Office and are prepared to work in any capacity."

Mrs Khan said that her department had been like a "ghetto" by the time she and Mrs King were short of work. "It was a total waste of taxpayers' money to pay me to do nothing whilst at the same time employing [others] at 50 per cent more than my hourly rate to undertake the tasks."

The Home Office claims that relations with the two women have broken down irretrievably and says that they acted unreasonably in rejecting job offers before they were dismissed. The panel is expected to announce how much compensation each woman will receive next month.


The pain of being a conservative at the BBC

If you want to see BBC man in his natural habitat you must travel to the unpromising reaches of Wood Lane in west London, the corporation's spiritual heartland. You can learn a lot about the organisation from pavement level. Your eye will certainly be drawn to the familiar outline of Television Centre (known as "the centre" by BBC types), but you will also take in the massy new development which squats by the elevated section of the Westway. This is known - in irritating coinage - as the "media village" and its imposing size and confident design telegraph to the observer that this organisation is a leviathan.

With its proliferating television and radio channels the corporation is easily the country's most important media organisation. It reaches into every home, is many people's constant companion, and shapes and moulds opinion in ways that we hardly understand. Its stated ambition is to become the most "trusted media organisation in the world" and given its glittering reputation for quality, accuracy and fairness we might think that it has already realised that aim.

However, after 25 years as a BBC reporter I concluded that I could not trust it. Auntie has moved away from its nonpartisan ideals to championing progressive causes. And that is a distorting prism through which to see the world.

Back to pavement level. As you stand there outside the Tube at White City, BBC people course past you. They swing into work with their interesting bags and clothes, no two alike. In this respect, at least, the BBC does fulfil its royal charter obligation to balance: no style goes unrepresented. But their colourful plumage camouflages a more insidious conformity. For with membership of the tribe comes adherence to a set of well defined political beliefs, distinctly inclined to the left.

These convictions are not made explicit to the outsider; the line for public consumption is that the BBC has no line. But this is moonshine; it takes very strong editorial positions which are consistent and clear. There is no central diktat, for instance, insisting that all employees believe that George Bush is an idiot and that the American religious right threatens world peace. But you would find few BBC people who would dissent from such views.

Why should this be so? First, the majority of BBC employees share similar backgrounds: they are middle-class arts graduates of liberal outlook. Second, the internal political culture within the corporation's newsrooms is well defined and subtly coercive. It was Lord Macpherson, in his inquiry into the Stephen Law-rence murder, who alerted us to the possibility that organisations can develop institutional deformations; in the case of the Metropolitan police it was racism. In the case of the BBC, by precise analogy, it is leftism.

When I first joined the BBC in the 1970s I accepted all this as the natural order. In BBC Scotland where I worked in the 1980s there was a suffocating anti-Thatcher consensus. As it happened, I was the business and economics correspondent and I had become convinced that Thatcherite economics were necessary and actually worked. These heretical views were looked upon askance; most of my colleagues thought I was just winding them up. "You don't really believe that, do you?" they would sometimes ask plaintively. I nearly came to blows with one producer (who later rose to prominence at BBC Westminster) because he would not accept that Thatcherism was a legitimate political creed at all.

The anti-Thatcher bias was sometimes jaw-dropping. In 1984 I returned to my office in Scotland having covered the Tory conference in Brighton at which the Grand hotel was bombed by the IRA. "Pity they missed the bitch," one of my colleagues commented. When I moved to London I found things were just as bad. If you find yourself working alongside well educated, intelligent and agreeable people it can be uncomfortable to be the dissenting voice. As one producer described it, you almost feel part of an ethnic minority. I remember a planning meeting at The Money Programme where we were discussing privatisation. I offered up the Thatcherite orthodoxy; there was a pause of the kind you get when someone has made an audible bodily function at a dinner party and then I was politely ignored.

Try making a reasoned argument against abortion, single parenthood or comprehensive education - or in favour of the Iraq war - at the BBC and see how much progress you make.

Of course none of this would matter if it was merely about the discomfiture of a handful of misfit conservatives in the BBC's ranks. But it is much more serious than that. The fact is that the BBC's internal political culture profoundly colours its news output. The corporation's public stance has always been that it is fair, evenhanded and nonpartisan. Sadly the reality is different.

Of course the convictions of individual journalists have a bearing on what is broadcast. How could that not be so? For it to be otherwise BBC journalists would need to display a judiciousness that would be remarkable in the judiciary itself. All journalism is about selection: which story to cover, which to ignore, who to interview and which bits of it to use in the finished piece. At every stage journalistic judgment comes into play. As consumers of news, we should all be aware that the BBC's news agenda is only one among many; it is fallible, partial and hugely influential. Scripts are often as opinionated as any editorial in The Guardian.

There will be many, I'm sure, who will immediately object and fly to the BBC's defence when I claim that the corporation's journalism consistently favours the Labour party and the liberal left generally. They will point especially to the Iraq war, Andrew Gilligan, Lord Hutton et al. Surely that proves the corporation is robustly independent? Er, no, actually. What was striking to me while working on the Today programme was how rapidly a doom-laden BBC line emerged about the war; from the very outset Today and the rest of the corporation were instinctively and viscerally opposed to military action. When I suggested that our coverage was skewed, the programme's editor told me: "That's a very dangerous view."

The BBC's stance had consequences. I believe it reduced even further the slim chance that military action would prove effective, for the combined might of the BBC's suasion was committed from the outset to proving that the war was a disaster and Tony Blair a liar (just think what effect that had on opinion both in Britain and around the world). The loss of public support, orchestrated by the BBC, has been a grievous handicap for the war party. The only reason the BBC bet the farm on Gilligan was that it passionately wanted to believe that not only was the war wrong but that the government had lied through its teeth. Inconveniently Hutton found otherwise, not that this altered the BBC's conviction that, really, it was right all along.

The BBC is too big and important an institution for the situation to be allowed to persist. The first step towards a remedy must be for the corporation itself to acknowledge that it has a problem. There are plenty of BBC people, including senior and well known individuals, who will do exactly that in private. But it is essential that the BBC breaches the omerta - the code of silence - and fesses up in public. Then some practical steps could be taken. Bias not only stifles public debate, it is also destructive for the corporation.

In the late 1990s my colleagues had elected me to the BBC forum, designed to improve communication between management and staff. At one meeting in December 2000 I suggested to Greg Dyke, then the director-general, that there should be an internal inquiry into bias. Dyke, a Labour party donor and member, mumbled a muddled reply. As he left the meeting I overheard him demand of his PA: "Who was that f*****?"

"Diversity" is a concept much venerated within the BBC and yet my diverse political view was never respected. Dyke labelled the institution "hideously white", but skin colour is not the only diversity issue. There is a need for some kind of reasonable balance between people of differing political complexions. It is striking, for instance, that whereas I could name a long list of senior BBC journalists with left-wing antecedents, I cannot think of a single one from the right.

It is time that the BBC started hiring journalists from the right, not as a token presence but as part of the mainstream. And it would not be a bad thing if, like London policemen, BBC producers and reporters got "diversity training" that sensitised them to the problem. A more radical change would be to go for a market solution. No one demands that newspapers should be nonpartisan; readers are allowed to choose the one that chimes with their outlook. Why should broadcasting be different?

Fox News in America challenged the old networks and showed there was a big appetite for such a service. But entry costs are very high. Why not take, say, 2% of the BBC's revenue (a tasty 60 million pounds) to establish a rival service? Wouldn't it be refreshing to have a real alternative to Radio 4? The BBC has demonstrated it cannot be all things to all men; perhaps it is time for a change.


Britain: The other e-petition -- about forbidden photographs

A Hampshire photographer has taken a stand against the suspicion and restrictions snappers face due to the 'paedophile panic'.

E-petitions are getting popular. Recently 1,633,894 people (and counting) signed a petition on the British government’s 10 Downing Street website opposing the idea of road-pricing. And it’s not only drivers who are using the system to make their point.

On 14 February, a petition against restrictions on photography was started by Simon Taylor, a 43-year-old semi-professional photographer from Hampshire, England (1). The petition says: ‘We the undersigned petition the prime minister to stop proposed restrictions regarding photography in public places.’ Since he launched the e-petition it’s received over 4,000 signatures. News about his petition is even on the front page of the current issue of Amateur Photographer magazine (2).

The ‘more details’ section of the webpage fleshes out Taylor’s point: ‘There are a number of moves promoting the requirement of “ID” cards to allow photographers to operate in a public place. It is a fundamental right of a UK citizen to use a camera in a public place; indeed there is no right to privacy when in a public place. These moves have developed from paranoia and only promote suspicion towards genuine people following their hobby or profession.’

What the ‘moves’ are is not stated, although admittedly there’s very little room to offer much information in the e-petition ‘more details’ box. So I ring Taylor to get more information. He points out that there are a number of disturbing instances where photographers are being told (wrongly) that they can’t photograph groups of people and scenes in public places by child protection officers, security guards, London Eye officials and police officers. Sometimes photographers have been told to delete their photographs. He’s written about some of the cases on his website, where there are also more details about the petition (3).

Photographers have also been asked for identity cards or proof that they are members of a photography club or a professional photography organisation, as if only officially approved photographers should be allowed to take pictures. Taylor believes everyone should be able to take pictures in public places, regardless of their professional status. He argues that, if anything, photographers should carry cards which highlight their rights, the ones that are the same as any other citizen.

As his website notes: ‘I and many photgraphers like me are getting increasingly frustrated at the restrictions that are imposed upon us, suspicion we suffer and the incorrect assumptions that are made.’ (4) As he tells me over the phone, ‘if I point my large camera at a child there will be people who instantly say “he’s a paedophile“‘.

And yet, even though Taylor thinks anyone should be allowed to take photographs in public, he supports the policy that says people who care and work closely with children should be submitted for checks by the Criminal Records Bureau. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which passed through the UK Parliament last year, will require every adult who works with children (millions of people) to submit to such CRB checks. But as Josie Appleton, author of the Manifesto Club’s report The Case Against Vetting, points out, 10million people have been CRB-vetted since 2002, despite the fact that cases of adults physically harming children are rare. All of this only helps to stoke the paedophile panic, the culture of paranoia about adults near children, which Taylor says he is trying to challenge (5).

Also, Taylor is mistaken in believing that there is no legal right to privacy in a public place. Unfortunately, such is the closing down of public space these days, there is such a legal right. ‘Privacy’ has already been used to place curbs on the freedom of professional photographers. For example, in 2004, the European Court ruled that Princess Caroline of Monaco did have a right to go shopping free from being snapped by paparazzi cameras. Anyone can use this precedent in Britain - where the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and European Court rulings are recognised - to argue in court that they, too, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places (see Princess of Privacy, by Tessa Mayes).

The media must be free to photograph events in public as part of communicating information in a democracy. When the courts allow journalists to argue as a legal defence that their work is ‘in the public interest’, it is a recognition of the fact that the media help to facilitate an important democratic right for all of us to know what’s going on in the world.

Taylor’s petition raises important questions about freedom of the press and the stifling impact of fear and suspicion on journalism and investigation, or just on pursuing a hobby. Unfortunately, it also highlights that e-petitions are fairly limited in the extent to which they can develop debate and push for change.


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