Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BBC Radio star Mark Lawson was sacked for 'bullying' but never told who his accusers are

Franz Kafka's absurdist novel The Trial features a bank clerk dragged through a strange but menacing legal system and who has to defend himself against criminal charges that he's given absolutely no information about.

The famous literary scenario, which helped spawn the term 'Kafkaesque', feels depressingly familiar to Mark Lawson, one of Britain's best-known cultural commentators. For he's been at the centre of a real-life version for the past two years.

The saga began when Lawson — a hugely respected broadcaster, author and playwright — was sacked as the host of Radio 4's flagship arts programme Front Row.

He had first been employed by the Corporation to present the show in 1998 and, over 16 years, fronted 2,300 episodes interviewing a galaxy of Hollywood stars, including Robert De Niro, Woody Allen, Helen Mirren and Russell Crowe (who stormed out when Lawson suggested his 'English' accent in the film Robin Hood sounded Irish).

Under Lawson, the programme, which attracted a considerable and loyal following, was the BBC at its best — managing to be high-brow, dynamic and very accessible. Since he left, many say the show has lost its creative spark, and its audience has fallen from around 2.25 million to two million, according to Rajar figures.

Lawson's departure came out of the blue. One day, in February 2014, he was summoned to a meeting with a senior BBC executive and told he was being fired.

The news became public a month later. And while BBC bosses refused to formally explain the reason — saying only that he'd left for unspecified 'personal reasons' — it was widely reported to involve a 'bullying' scandal within the arts department.

Indeed, several newspapers were briefed that Lawson had been guilty of 'appalling behaviour' towards colleagues in the Front Row office and had even 'browbeaten junior staff'. No specific examples were ever detailed and no named witness ever went public with any complaint.

All the same, one paper reported there was 'a real problem' with his attitude and workplace conduct, adding: 'They [the BBC] had to deal with it.'

With that, Lawson's personal and professional reputation was tossed into the gutter. Branded a bully, tarnished by innuendo, shunned by some friends, and having lost his main source of income, he retreated to his family home in rural Northamptonshire.

Suffering insomnia, lack of appetite and other symptoms of stress, he was diagnosed with 'mixed anxiety and depression disorder'. 'It was what my grandmother would call a nervous breakdown,' he says.

Then, having beaten the worst of the symptoms with anti-depressants, he decided to write a novel. Now, two years later, it has been published.

Its plot is an explosive collision of art and real life . . . bearing several uncanny similarities to Lawson's own ordeal.

Titled The Allegations, it centres on two middle-aged academics accused of serious misconduct — one of bullying, the other of historic sex crimes — by anonymous self-styled 'victims'. One of the accused, a history professor alleged to have raped a woman, suffers a nervous breakdown after being the subject of lurid news stories.

Intriguingly, though a work of fiction, the book contains an 'author's note' that makes specific reference to Lawson's sacking.

It says: 'During a long, generally privileged and happy career in the media, I suffered one devastating experience of institutional group-think, baffling and contradictory management, false accusation and surreally sub-legal process.

'As a result, I have personal knowledge of the damage to reputation, employability and health that can result from such an ordeal.'

Lawson expanded on this in an interview this week on Radio 4's Today Programme.

He told how he was sacked from Front Row after being 'found guilty of still unspecified offences' under the BBC's 'Respect At Work' code.

Most shockingly, he disclosed he's never been told precisely what he was alleged to have done wrong, when it had occurred or who had complained about his conduct. Thus, with no detailed and specific allegation to respond to, he's never been able to offer any proper defence against the general charge of 'bullying', which, of course, has many levels of seriousness.

Nor, most shamefully, was he allowed to call witnesses to give evidence on his behalf.

He still professes not to know if he is accused of 'bullying' physically, verbally or in another manner. He fears a series of vague (but highly damaging) claims were taken as fact.

Lawson explained this left him feeling like a tennis player facing an opponent 'serving with an invisible racket and tennis balls'.

He said: 'You never know what's being fired at you and therefore can't respond to it.' All of which begs the question: what actually did happen?

Was Lawson really a cruel bully? Or the victim of a scandalous injustice and a Witches Of Salem-style trial by secretive and politically correct BBC gauleiters?

Of course, in a free society, we should all be considered innocent until proven guilty. But because of the failure by the BBC to give precise details of the allegations, it is only possible to give a partial picture of what happened.

Even so, it provides a startling insight into how the vast, Left-leaning bureaucracy of BBC management operates in its suffocating culture of political correctness.

The affair provides a chilling glimpse at the wider world of public-sector management techniques, where, all too often, vague and unsubstantiated allegations, made by anonymous 'victims' with scant corroborating evidence, can be treated as fact.

As for Lawson, on the principal charge of 'bullying', I have found no evidence he attacked or threatened a BBC colleague in the manner of, say, Jeremy Clarkson (who notoriously, punched a Top Gear producer). Instead, the allegations seem to involve verbal disagreements with colleagues over editorial matters. Like many successful people, he can at times give an impression of arrogance, and isn't afraid to voice his opinion.

Indeed, Lawson himself admits that he occasionally voiced 'frustrations over the ways in which interviews were cut, or with the quality of studio production or logistical arrangements'. However, he denies using bad language or personal insults.

'Bullying has no legal definition,' he says. 'I have spent three years reflecting on what I might have done. Did I raise my voice? Did I look askance at someone? Did I say: 'This is a really bad idea!'? I obviously did some of those things, but I never shouted at anyone. In fact, I tend to surly silence. I sometimes argue back, but as congenially as possible.'

While he accepts that he can occasionally be 'quite annoying', he doesn't see how that makes him a bully. 'All presenters I have ever known are happier working with some colleagues than others, and I was no different,' he tells me.

'I was initially told, for instance, by a senior producer that my now notorious interview with Russell Crowe was 'unbroadcastable' because it had 'gone pear-shaped'. But when aired, it attracted much interest.'

One strange and unspecific allegation of bullying that was put to Lawson, he says, is that he 'stifled creativity' by occasionally writing his own scripts or attempting to come up with his own questions to ask celebrity interviewees.

That appears to have annoyed some colleagues, who regard such work as the preserve of producers. Indeed, he says the Front Row team has two editors, four senior producers, two junior producers, plus assorted freelances and three presenters. But it can hardly be called bullying.

'Front Row could be an odd place,' says Lawson. 'There was one producer who would only communicate by email — even with people at adjoining desks.

'Another person seemed to be running two commercial companies from their desk and so they often fell behind with deadlines. There was one colleague who'd regularly 'lose it' and scream into our faces, and another who more than once failed to turn up to record interviews with A-list stars.'

'On a few occasions, I was left terrified, not knowing what the next item would be [in a live show] because a producer had lost control of the programme. But my attitude was that such stuff happens in offices and it was better to get on with it than to complain.'

Taking Lawson's story chronologically, it stretches back to the summer of 2013 when 15 members of staff from the BBC's Arts Unit (which makes Front Row) sent a joint letter to Ruth Gardiner, new editor of Radio 3 Arts, and Rob Ketteridge, her Radio 4 equivalent.

Although it was later, wrongly, described as a 'petition' against Lawson, the letter, of which I have obtained a copy, made no mention of him.

It simply made general complaints about a number of issues including 'persistent bullying' and 'favouritism' within the Arts Unit.

No one was singled out for blame. Indeed, Lawson was originally invited to sign the letter, though declined because, he says, he didn't agree with the 'shopping list' of grievances.

In due course, an 'inquiry into the conduct and culture of the Arts Unit' was carried out by Diane Reid, a manager from the Corporation's Arts Department. Lawson was one of the many people she interviewed.

She didn't put any allegations of bullying to him, but he says he was 'invited to criticise colleagues, but declined'.

The findings of the inquiry were never made public, for reasons the BBC has never explained. However, on February 5, 2014, Lawson was summoned to see Graham Ellis, BBC Deputy Director of Radio.

Lawson says Ellis told him that he'd been found guilty of bullying and 'should leave the BBC immediately'.

'I asked what I'd supposedly done wrong, and was told that I wasn't allowed to know specifics in order to, as he put it, preserve the anonymity of victims.'

Lawson, who was freelance, was told he had no right of appeal. However, he could air grievances about the disciplinary process at an 'informal hearing' with a senior news manager.

According to Lawson, the manager recommended he should return to Front Row. If so, he was over-ruled.

At around the same time, Lawson says he was invited to a London hotel to read a document laying out some of the complaints supposedly been made against him. However, he says these were anonymous and mostly anecdotal.

'It was stuff like, 'he once criticised me after a recording',' he says. 'There were no names, or dates, or details that could allow me to give my version of events.'

Lawson's departure was made public in early March.

He remains unsure about what prompted it, and the BBC did not respond to detailed questions I submitted about the affair. 'We don't disclose individual cases,' they said.

BBC sources say some aspects of Lawson's version of events are 'critically wrong'.

Ellis — who is paid between £190,000 and £220,000 and whose only previous brush with controversy came when BBC expense claims were published revealing that he once ran up a £500 drinks tab at an awards do at the licence-payers' expense — refused to comment.

Refelecting on the process, Lawson tells me: 'I'm sure I could be stubborn and argumentative. But the people who I disagreed with [in the Front Row office] were not always 'a day at the beach' themselves.

'The problem for me was that the BBC HR unit briefly introduced a rule that, if someone thought they were being 'bullied', then they were. Under this system, a complainant was automatically declared a 'victim' and unchallenged anecdote was treated as 'evidence'.'

He sees this as unacceptable and one-sided. 'I don't think anyone can survive a process where people can complain anonymously about how you might have offended them and are simply believed. All I've ever wanted is a chance to know what specifically I supposedly did, and then respond.'

Though not a man inclined to conspiracy theories, Lawson wonders if his role in the Jimmy Savile affair contributed to his sacking. In 2013, he'd given evidence to Dame Janet Smith's inquiry into the scandal of the paedophile BBC DJ, telling how he'd witnessed a sexual assault by Savile and reported it to managers, only for his complaint to be ignored.

He now believes this made him 'an object of hostility and suspicion to some radio managers'.

As to the 'bullying' evidence against Lawson, that remains largely a mystery. I can find only two people who have publicly accused him of bullying. One is Jon Wilson, who greeted news of Lawson's departure in May 2014 by declaring on Twitter: 'At last the BBC does something to tackle its bullying presenters. Hurray for the sacking of Mark Lawson!'

Dr Wilson, a historian at King's College, London, has been a Labour councillor and a convenor of an organisation called London Socialist Historians.

More importantly, he is the husband of Elaine Lester, who works as a producer on Front Row (though has never worked with Lawson).

Does she have evidence that Mark Lawson is a bully? 'My views are not those of Dr Jon Wilson, who has many BBC contacts prior to and independent of his relationship with me, and his views are his own,' Lester tells me, adding that she 'cannot recall' ever having spoken with Lawson.

Also, there is a radio producer called Bob Dickinson, who once worked on Front Row and also used Twitter this week to state 'Lawson and his producer buddies' had 'used bullying tactics' and 'made my life hell'. He failed to respond to our request to elaborate.

Finally, there is the strange role of the National Union of Journalists. According to this week's Today programme report on Lawson's sacking, the Union recently issued a statement alleging: 'In a staff meeting in March 2014, a BBC manager described the effect of Lawson's behaviour in the following words: 'Lives have been destroyed.' '

Strangely, however, when the Mail asked the NUJ for a copy, the union denied that it existed, claiming 'there wasn't a press statement issued'. I then managed to obtain a copy from another source — and found that statement had been emailed to the BBC by an NUJ representative. Informed of this, the NUJ then refused to comment.

All very curious. Perhaps the NUJ was having second thoughts about the wisdom of making such a damaging allegation via an anonymous quote. For, in depressingly familiar fashion, the statement contains no verifiable details about what the supposed bullying involved. It's a bizarre omission, given that, as Lawson says, the claim that he has 'destroyed lives' is 'vague, but lethal, highly defamatory, and appears to represent an attempt to make me unemployable'.

Under laws of natural justice, the 'BBC manager' would, of course, be named, and asked to expand on his views, so that Lawson could respond.

With this in mind, Lawson yesterday wrote to the BBC demanding a formal inquiry into his sacking. Alas, that seems unlikely to happen.

'The man in Kafka's The Trial knew that he was on trial, but not what the charges were,' is how Lawson puts it. 'I didn't even know I was on trial!

'It wasn't Kafkaesque, so much as beyond Kafkaesque.' But this is the world in which we apparently now live.

Original report here

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