I was at the annual Private Eye/Guardian Paul Foot Awards for investigative journalism last night and naturally the conversation with some of the most celebrated names in the profession turned to Tower Hamlets.
They’re all aware of what a basket case it is and how badly served its residents have been over the years by far too many councillors and officers.
What some weren’t aware of was the culture at officer level to try and close down journalistic scrutiny.
In the same way that Labour did for so many years, Lutfur’s administration seems to have successfully muzzled the influential Bengali media (and if Alibor Choudhury is reading this, I mean the British Bangladeshi media). The grant money and other council cash he’s chucked their way has probably helped. So too has the hiring of Channel S reporter Mohammed Jubair to work as his part-time adviser on “community media” (the job title is interesting: Jubair doesn’t have any contact at all with the East London Advertiser).
But there’s another issue. The frequency with which Takki Sulaiaman, the council’s £100k a year head of communications, rings the Advertiser to yell at impudent journalists is legendary, staff there tell me. He’s become something of a figure of fun there.
This is nothing new in Tower Hamlets. A few months after I joined the Advertiser and started investigating the council in 2005, one of Takki’s predecessors, Lorraine Langham (now the chief operating officer at Ofsted) called my editor at home and whispered to him that I was working every Saturday at the Sunday Express. She wondered whether I was in breach of my contract. My editor, the fabulous Malcolm Starbrook, put her straight: I’d already got permission to do those shifts. He was furious she had tried to get me sacked.
In 2012, the council’s then chief lawyer Isabella Freeman (now at the Homes and Communities Agency) sent me a series of erratic and poorly spelled emails and letters in which she threatened to sue me because I had likened her to an ostrich. She also seemed to determined to shut down this blog.
But what the hacks at last night’s do were most concerned about was a letter sent by Takki to my editor at the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend, in November 2012 in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry. They suggested I publish it here, which is what I’ll do.
Regular readers will remember this story I ran in October 2012 about a headhunter’s report that had been leaked to me on Murziline Parchment’s application to become council chief executive. The report was damning and suggested she was nowhere near able at that stage to do the job. The reason I published it in full (and after careful consideration) was because she was later recruited as the extremely important ‘head of the mayor’s office’ working directly for Lutfur Rahman. Her experience working for Ken Livingstone at City Hall probably helped her.
It was a classic case of public interest journalism, but Takki was incandescent. They had no legal case, so they very sneakily went to my editor to try and get me sacked.
The letter laid out a load of trumped up charges on the Editor’s Code (none of them remotely stood up), sinisterly raised the work of Leveson, and claimed I was blurring the lines between my job at the Sunday Express and this unpaid blog.
As our lawyer and my editor said to Takki in reply, there is no boundary. The blog is part of my journalistic toolkit (which frequently provided stories for the Sunday Express).
Takki had even gone to the length of checking the watermark on the scan of the leaked document I’d posted on this blog: he’d seen it had been created using ‘terryscanner’, which is a network name for a scanner allocated to my former and now retired Sunday Express picture editor, Terry Evans.
The letter was received with disbelief and hilarity. There was a discussion about whether we should even reply, but we did do, telling Takki in the politest possible terms to back off, get real and stop trying to muzzle the investigative journalism that has helped several articles and news items/documentaries in the national and broadcast media.
We didn’t hear from him again. But he’s a busy man at moment and with the election coming up, I hope he keeps it together.
Here’s the letter.