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.


Censoring students at Oxford? That is so gay

Welcome to the Oxford college where students can use the word gay to refer to a homosexual man but not to describe a rubbish pool shot.

In the quad at Merton College, Oxford, scruffily-clad students scurry to their lectures. But behind this everyday student scene, there lurks a rather bizarre controversy. The trendy college is renowned for its LGBT-friendly ethos (that’s LGBT as in ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender’), yet it has become a rather unlikely setting for a university-wide controversy over homophobic remarks. Recently, fourth-year Merton student Andrew Godfrey complained about some of the language being used by his fellow students. This led to official action by the executive of the Junior Common Room (JCR) warning the student body to refrain from ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour ‘even if you are not being intentionally malicious’. Students were reprimanded for contributing to ‘an uncomfortable atmosphere in college’.

What was the ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour? It consisted of limp-wristed impressions and the use of phrases such as ‘Oh don’t be such a poof!’ and ‘You missed that shot, you big gay!’ during a heated game of pool in Merton’s swanky Games Room.

In response to Godfrey’s complaint about this behaviour, the college’s JCR president, Laura Davies, sent out the following email to students (drafted by Godfrey in collaboration with student welfare and LGBT representatives): ‘JCR members have raised concerns after groups have been overheard in the Games Room and other communal areas of college using terms like “gay” and “poof” as joking insults. Please be aware that using language like this is unacceptable and extremely offensive, even if you are not being intentionally malicious and think you are being ironic or witty in some way. It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the college.’

Can students not take a joke anymore? Can they not handle the use of words such as ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ in a slang context, in a setting as informal as a Games Room? Both Davies and Godfrey admit that the students probably were not expressing anti-gay prejudice when they made these comments while making their wrists go all limp. As Godfrey himself says: ‘I never maintained that this was deliberately malicious homophobia because I didn’t feel like I had been harassed; otherwise I would have turned to the college authorities. They were basically acting the way guys do.’

And yet guys ‘acting the way guys do’ has now been redefined as ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour that apparently warrants a stern official warning. Davies tells me she had no qualms about sending an official admonishment to the entire student body in response to behaviour that she admits was not purposefully malicious or offensive. ‘One of the JCR members raised the fact that he was quite unhappy with someone using the word “gay” and that he personally found that very offensive’, she says. This is a world away from John Stuart Mill’s argument that opinions ought only to ‘lose their immunity’ when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’ (1). His point, made in On Liberty in 1859, was that only in instances where words and actions might directly lead to violence could one make a case for curtailing freedom of speech. Fast forward 150 years and we have the new Merton rule – where JCR officials recognise that students saying ‘gay’ to mean rubbish and swinging their wrists around was not intended maliciously, much less was it likely to lead to violence; and yet because these antics offended the sensibilities of a single student they took it upon themselves to chastise all students in a hectoring missive about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

This points to a worrying level of sensitivity among today’s students, and a lackadaisical attitude towards words, arguments and freedom of speech. The JCR’s aim seemed to be, not to protect students from harm, but to protect the college’s reputation for being caring and accepting from the ‘unmannered’ behaviour of some students playing a game of pool.

Apparently the term ‘gay’ is now in common usage among young people to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This has caused some controversy, especially among gay rights groups who don’t like the idea that being called ‘gay’ is now seen as something negative. Last year Radio 1 presenter Chris Moyles was the subject of an internal BBC inquiry after he described a ringtone on air as ‘gay’. Leaving aside the question of why there has to be an inquiry every time a broadcaster says something un-PC, it is reasonable to ask: where could young people have got the idea that ‘gay = rubbish’?

How about from another term, very closely associated with gay culture: ‘camp’. ‘Camp’, as Stephen Bayley argued in his scratch-their-eyes-out book on New Labour, Labour Camp, is just a synonym for rubbish. Or, as Susan Sontag observed in Notes on Camp, first published in 1964, ‘The ultimate Camp statement [is] it’s good because it’s awful...’ Sontag noted that Camp culture tends to emphasise ‘texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content’; and that ‘homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard - and the most articulate audience - of Camp’.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to re-work ‘camp’ as ‘gay’, especially when so many gay celebrities tend to wallow in kitsch. If you, like many people both straight and gay, think Graham Norton and Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (now there’s a show that emphasises ‘style at the expense of content’) are pretty dreadful, then surely no one could blame you for associating ‘gay’, at least in its cultural sense, with ‘rubbish’.

The self-censoring attitude of Merton’s JCR reflects a broader view taken by many today: that free speech is something that can be easily sacrificed in the name of protecting people from utterances they might find offensive. The idea that students should behave according to some predetermined college ethos stands in stark contrast to the old idea of universities as places where young people should be free to experiment, to think, to argue, to learn, to say what they please in a student common room…. Enforcing an official dogma about words, phrases and actions betrays an elitist view of what sort of behaviour is appropriate, and what is not.

Worse, it treats students as children who either must be reprimanded for saying naughty words or who must be protected from the jokey words of big ‘bully boys’ by student officials posing as social workers. This infantilises students – which is hardly conducive to creating an atmosphere where students can grow, both educationally and personally.

Some students have reacted against the JCR’s illiberal telling-off. Merton student Ben Holroyd created an online group called The Gay Appreciation Society, which argued that: ‘The word “gay” has several definitions, only one of which is “homosexual”. Others include merry, licentious and wanton. When I miss a pot at the pool table, I sometimes refer to said shot as “gay”. Obviously, I do not consider the shot in question to be homosexual. Having said that, I rarely miss, so I seldom offend the minority of pedantic, over-sensitive fools at Merton.’

Perhaps the most pernicious thing about the Merton ruling on when it’s okay to say gay is that it represents almost an attempt at thought control. According to the JCR officials, it is okay to say ‘gay’ to refer to a homosexual man but not to describe a ‘rubbish’ pool shot. What is being monitored here is not just the use of language, but thought itself, the meaning behind one’s use of the word gay. We are presented with a two-tiered attitude to the word gay, where it’s okay to use it responsibly to mean homosexual but not irresponsibly to mean rubbish. It seems the JCR wants to get into Merton students’ minds to see what is really going on when they speak.

Even if some students had been expressing anti-gay prejudice in their use of words such as ‘gay’ and ‘poof’, then censure would be no solution. The idea that monitoring student language can have an impact on certain people’s prejudicial views, or on discrimination in the real world, is ridiculous. It merely brushes issues under the carpet, seeking to silence certain arguments rather than challenging them. Prejudice – which is a more serious matter than banter around a pool table – can only be effectively challenged in open debate, through reasoned argument.

University should be a place where we are free to experiment and to express ourselves in whatever way we deem fit. Disagreements can and should be settled between students themselves. Official sanctions telling us how we should behave only thwart the advance of genuine tolerance, which is based, not on intolerant censorship of uncomfortable views, but rather on establishing through open discussion which ideas are good, valuable and useful, and which are not.

The campus thought-police have no right to tell us how to think, speak or behave, and certainly not when we are just hanging out with friends and playing pool. They should bugger off and stop being so gay.


Costly British red tape: "The burden of red tape on British business has hit a record of nearly 56 billion pounds and shows no sign of slowing, according to figures to be published this week. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which compiles its "burdens barometer" on a regular basis, says the cumulative cost of regulation on British business is now 55.6 billion. A year ago that burden was 44.8 billion, revised figures reveal, implying an increase in red tape of more than o10 billion in the past 12 months. The BCC said the increase was particularly disappointing in light of the government's pledge to make 2006 the "year of delivery" on cutting red tape."

British jails waking up to Islamic problem: "The security services are conducting background checks on imams who provide religious and pastoral care in jails. The vetting, part of the effort to prevent inmates from being radicalised, is in addition to the routine counter-terrorism checks conducted by the Prison Service and a further check by the Criminal Records Bureau. A growing number of imams are being appointed to work either full or part time at prisons in England and Wales. The checks are in response to concerns that prisons may be an ideal environment for al-Qaeda operatives to radicalise and recruit young people. Another measure aimed at countering extremism is that all imams working in jails must speak English. In addition, prison authorities are spending thousands of pounds translating all texts from Arabic to English to ensure that they do not contain hidden messages. It is understood that all Arabic books, including the Koran, are subject to this vetting. The shoe bomber Richard Reid, the son of two non-Muslims, converted to violent jihadism after being radicalised at Feltham Young Offender Institution in West London."

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