To cut a long story short, I was ejected from a Tower Hamlets council meeting tonight and frogmarched out of the town hall by two uniformed security guards on the orders of Head of Communications Takki Sulaiman.
Because I told him he was acting like a prick.
I regret my choice of word. Four letters would have been enough.
He and I have a long history. He dislikes my journalism and I dislike his attitude to press freedom.
I’ve covered Tower Hamlets for nine years now and in that time I’ve seen a gradual erosion in the access afforded to reporters wishing to cover council meetings. That erosion didn’t start with Takki’s management of the communications department, but he has contributed to its acceleration.
He frequently converts press queries to Freedom of Information requests on the spurious grounds that they’d otherwise cause his team (which produces East End Life) too much work.
A couple of years ago, I felt he tried to get me the sack at the Sunday Express by writing to my editor because he objected to me using a scanner in my employer’s office.
And in 2011, he ordered the permanent removal of the reporters’ table that had been a fixture at the very front of the public gallery in the council chamber. After that, the council started reserving seats in the front row for reporters.
This last point is relevant to tonight’s events.
The meeting started at 7.30pm. I arrived some 10 minutes earlier. The public gallery was packed. I stood in the doorway of the council chamber looking for a seat and as is often the case, councillors and others came up to me to say hello.
I saw Takki sitting in a seat not far from the front. There was a space next to him, which he said had been reserved for East End Life. I asked another officer to show me the reserved press seats. She told me Takki had given them all up to members of the public. I asked why. She asked Takki. He told her because I hadn’t responded to an email to say I was coming. I told her I don’t think I ever got an email.
Besides, the council had clearly been expecting me. Here’s the ticket that had been waiting for me in the town hall reception when I arrived:
I was then told I’d have to sit at the back of the public gallery behind a large pillar that obscures the entire council chamber. I told the council officers that that was completely unsatisfactory. By this time Takki had given up his seat for a member of the public.
I then stood at the back of the public gallery in the far corner of the room where I could see (from a distance) the backs of three councillors’ heads.
I started tweeting this and remarked that East End Life had been given a reserved seat. Takki strode over with his iPad. He was logged on to my Twitter timeline. Like many others, he probably enjoys my live tweeting of these meetings. Bless him. He said Laraine Clay, the East End Life editor, was using a crutch and that’s why he’d reserved her a seat. Fair enough (and let me stress as I have on many occasions my deep respect for Laraine). I asked him when he’d sent me the email about reserved seating. He said one of his team had sent it. I said I didn’t get one and that anyway it was irrelevant. As he turned his back to walk away, in a quiet voice, one on one, I told him he was acting like a prick. He asked me to repeat it. So I did. He then asked whether I’d like to be removed from the gallery. I said, ‘Do what you want Takki, I’m trying to report.’
He then hurried off and walked into a wall.
Then a few seconds later, two THEOS (Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers) approached me. They asked me to leave the gallery. I followed them. Takki was waiting in the corridor outside. He asked me whether I’d called him a prick. I said Yes. He said I’d have to leave the building and the two THEOS walked me to the lift, got in, shook their heads in embarrassment and made sure I left the town hall.
The Evening Standard has covered this tonight. It’s another PR disaster for a council that desperately needs to improve in that department. And caused by the man who runs that department. Ours was a verbal spat between two grown adults – a hack and a spin doctor who are used to trading industrial language. And it comes at a time when there have been attempts behind the scenes to draw the poison from the political situation.
He says in a statement tonight: “This is my workplace, I have a right not to be abused in my workplace. I don’t know any other walk of life where it would be justified.”
Well, let’s try Tower Hamlets politics shall we? Over many years, both he and I have witnessed abuse hurled at councillors from the public gallery, some of it homophobic, some of it about personal appearance.
And in none of those instances did Takki or anyone else ask for people to be evicted.
In fact, the only other time I can remember Takki & Co asking someone to be marched out was last year…when the redoubtable John Wright, a 71 year old Alzheimer’s Ambassador was physically removed from the chamber for having the temerity to film proceedings after Eric Pickles had said ‘Go ahead’.
Anyone spot a pattern here?
PS Oli Rahman was named Deputy Mayor tonight. Congratulations to him. I’ve never heard him swear in my life. Ahem.