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Archive for August, 2014

Remember these invoices I was sent by Tower Hamlets council under the Freedom of Information Act?

Panorama Champollin Invoices2 Panorama Champollion Invoices3

They were submitted by Champollion, the PR specialists hired by the council’s £100,000 a year head of communications, Takki Sulaiman. They were brought in because he and colleagues felt they were incapable of producing a media strategy to deal with the Panorama programme in March. They needed help.

The invoice totals were redacted because the council felt it had to protect its own and Champollion’s commercial interests.

Well, thanks to the wonderful Audit Commission Act, which allows people to investigate how their taxes are spent, I’ve been able to obtain the non-redacted copies.

Here:

Champollion invoice Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 21.21.00

So £26,970 + £14,174 = £41,144.

Actually, there was a third invoice from Champollion but because that was submitted after the financial year end on April 30, it falls outside the scope of the Audit Commission Act. We’ll have to wait until next year for that.

Still, not bad for a few weeks’ work. I’ve also obtained the contract between Champollion and the council. The contract commenced on February 14 and was signed by Kim Catcheside, a Champollion director and formerly the well-known BBC education and social affairs correspondent.

The brief sent out in January by the council to PR companies intending to bid for this goldmine stated:

A documentary is being made about Tower Hamlets and the Mayoral system by an investigative team commissioned by the BBC. The programme has been in development since at least June/July 2013 but we first became aware of the project in October.

It has proved hard to engage with them and the council is keen to ensure accuracy and balance in the final product. It appears the team want to make their documentary and add on an interview with the Mayor at the end. The precise focus of the documentary is being gleaned from other organisations rather than the documentary team. An interview is likely in mid to late February and a tour has been offered and accepted.

At the back of the contract is a schedule of Champollion’s proposed fees.

Here:

champollion fees

Kim Catcheside was the director assigned to the project. The proposal was that she would be charged to the taxpayer at an hourly rate of £250, or £1,750 for an eight-hour day. That’s about £455,000 for a 270-working day year. (That’s not Kim’s salary, of course.)

My new documents show that part of Kim’s £250-an-hour work was to spend some time coaching and preparing Mayor Lutfur Rahman for his interview with Panorama’s John Ware.

Here:

champollion briefing

And how very kind of them, you’ll notice, to offer a “Champollion graduate” to the Tower Hamlets press office…at the rate of £500 a day. £500 a day equates to a fee of £135,000 a year. They must have some pretty talented graduates on their books. Maybe Takki should sign up for a job there, if he has a degree.

You’ll also see that part of Champollion’s brief was to attend meetings with the council’s legal team.

Well, that team, headed by Meic Sullivan-Gould, had also decided it didn’t have the expertise to handle Panorama and ensure what the BBC is required to do anyway, ie adhere to its own charter.

So Meic commissioned City lawyers Taylor Wessing. Their brief also included handling the so-called Panorama “whistleblower”, who is now under criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office. They also spent many hours examining the dossier she “obtained” from Panorama and which she passed to the mayor’s office in (probably) late January.

Thanks to the Audit Commission Act, I’ve also obtained the invoices from Taylor Wessing, its contract with LBTH and various other incredibly interesting back-up details.

Here are the invoices:

So that’s £36,922.72 + £40,170.74 + £3,179.72 + £1,651.52 = £81,924.70.

Here’s part of the brief Meic supplied to bidders in January (after they’d been handed the leaked dossier, of course):

TW brief

But Taylor Wessing were ever so kind when it came to costs.

Here’s a section from a letter sent by their Trademarks, Copyright and Media Partner, Niri Shanmuganathan, to Meic.

TW costs

So the partner charged £408.76 an hour; Tim Pinto, the “trademarks copyright and media senior counsel” charged £330 per hour; and the trainee was charged at a mere £156 per hour. All plus VAT.

They even charged LBTH for reading my blog! Which is free. At least someone’s making money from it.

I write all this, and there’s more to come, because any Tower Hamlets elector has the right to object to the council’s accounts. You have the right to dispute these invoices if you feel they are not valid or properly commissioned in some way.

In summary, the council paid at least £123,068 to Champollion and Taylor Wessing to try and stop/limit the damage from a half-hour Panorama documentary.

The council’s Audit Committee meets on September 16 when the external auditors will meet officers and councillors to discuss the draft accounts. Any objection should be raised then. I’ll dig out the email and post it here tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the wait for the PwC report into LBTH continues (at a cost of £1million…).

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Sometimes you just have to despair.

I was told this morning the black shahada flag that was taken down from the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar on Friday morning is now back up.

I’m told this followed an angry estate meeting on Friday when wiser heads warned that re-erecting it would be provocative and bound to cause trouble.

I’m told ex-Respect councillor Dulal Uddin, who appeared on a strange Newsnight account of the affair on Friday (when there was no mention of the anti-Semitic abuse directed at me and Guardian journalists the previous evening), was the key agitator behind its return.

Dulal was one of the more unremarkable councillors during his stint from 2006-2010, but I’m told he’s desperate to get back into the council. There are some who believe he’s using this row for his own ends.

I understand that Sister Christine Frost, the community activist who asked for the flag to be taken down, is furious her actions were reported as “Christian nun tears down flag”; her actions were not faith-related but potential trouble related. I understand she disagrees with it being back up. I understand she’s concerned the issue is being exploited by politically motivated adults who don’t even live on the estate.

Whatever the motives, this is a stupid and dangerous move.

I understand that Chief Inspector Gary Anderson, of Tower Hamlets police, was present at Friday’s estate meeting. That meeting ended with a unanimous resolution to:

  • re-erect the Shahada, but with explanations in English below for ‘non-Muslims’. It would say it’s a flag that affirms the Islamic faith.
  • that all meet for five minutes to pray for peace in silence (all faiths and none)
  • they do some “conflict resolution” work with young people
  • to meet again on Monday

Some quick thoughts (I have a lunch date I need to make).

1. If they want a flag, why not settle for the Palestinian flag? Flying an Islamic flag (that experts say on a black background has jihadist overtones) sends the message this is a religious conflict.

2. This is a Tower Hamlets Homes estate. It is publicly owned. The council has ultimate control and ownership. Why is THH allowing political/religious flags to be flown from public property where people of all faiths and none live? How does that square with inclusiveness?

3. Mayor Lutfur Rahman asked for the flag to be taken down on Thursday night. Surely, he’ll have to follow that through.

4. I’ve not heard one apology from any of the leaders of the Will Crooks estate for the anti-Semitism. It’s not even mentioned in a statement I know they’ve distributed to people.

Fail all around.

More later..

UPDATE, 6pm, August 10 – Flag removed again (after police called)

The agreement of Friday’s estate meeting was, according to someone there, to re-erect the flag somewhere in the estate so long as it was accompanied by a translation of the shahada. That meeting agreed to meet again tomorrow to decide when and where it would go up.

However, last night someone broke that agreement. Key figures on the estate believe Dulal Uddin and others were agitating for it to go up again before tomorrow’s meeting.

I’m told that Sister Christine Frost rang the police this morning to tell them the flag was back up. That’s why, as Cllr Andrew Wood reported in the comments section of this blog, Ch Insp Anderson was there today.

In fact it was Ch Insp Anderson who supervised the removal of the flag again this afternoon.

Sister Christine has asked Lutfur to ensure that no religious flags are allowed in public places such as that estate. She wants to foster inclusiveness there.

Before the flag was removed again, Poplar and Limehouse MP Jim Fitzpatrick issued this statement:

“If the black flag is indeed a religious symbol and not a jihadist one, it should be displayed in a religious building and not on public property. The Mayor should instruct his officers to remove it as he did on Friday.”

In the meantime, and before Lutfur was aware of Jim’s intervention, the mayor had ordered it again to be removed. He has also asked the council’s youth service to conduct some “serious engagement” work on the estate to ensure the youth (and probably some adults) fully understand the issues.

I’m also told the estate caretakers have been told to look out for flags on their morning rounds, and remove any that have been hoisted again.

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Black flag PoplarThe Guardian today reported on an incident at the Will Crooks estate in Poplar High Street last night when journalists and a “passer-by” were sworn at by a group of youths.

The group was guarding a black flag they’d erected over the gates to the estate. The flag, which bore Arabic lettering, was believed by some who live nearby to be the ISIS flag.

Experts from the Quilliam Foundation have since assured me it was not. They say it is the shahada, the Islamic testament of faith, superimposed on a black flag. They think the message is: it’s your Islamic duty to support Muslims in Gaza. It is also said that by using a black, which is the colour of war in Sunni Muslim traditions, the message has jihadist overtones.

But I suppose it’s intent that matters. Who put these youths up to it? Did anyone? Are they actually thinking about what they’re doing?

I’ve also heard it argued that this is “Lutfur’s legacy”. The argument runs that by so frequently shouting racism and Islamophobia, he and his team have encouraged (unwittingly or not) an angry, unbalanced outlook. It’s said his decision to raise the Palestinian flag at the town hall last month increased this fervour.

While I think the town hall flag decision was unwise in a borough like Tower Hamlets (I understand his reasons, but I think there were other ways to demonstrate solidarity), I’m not sure he can be blamed for the current outbreak of anti-Jewish hatred. I suspect it’s been there a while.

I also think Lutfur has a good record in this area. He issued a strong statement after last night’s incident, which you can read below. (UPDATE AT 4.30pm: I’m told his office is also trying to calm the situation this afternoon: I hear the youths are being encouraged by some elders to erect more flags. Watch this space.)

That said, we need far more of this firm language. These kids/idiots quite possibly don’t even realise how prejudiced they are. It’s as if they’ve lacked firm parenting or teaching on the issue. And let’s be clear, this is not an attempt to smear all youths in Tower Hamlets. But there seems to be a terrible silence towards those who hate from those who should know better.

Lutfur needs to lead on tackling this. Perhaps special inter-faith task forces are needed to teach in mosques, schools and colleges…about anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim hatred.

Anyway, here’s the piece I wrote for the Express website today about my experiences at the Will Crooks estate last night. (The community activist I refer to is Sister Christine Frost: I bumped into her this morning just after she’d removed the flag.)

I WAS told this morning by a community activist in east London to be kind in this article to the Bengali Muslim youths who threatened violence last night…and who told me to “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”

So let me state her well-meaning view that they’re “good boys” and that they’ve been raising much money for the victims of the terrible violence in Gaza.

My wife, a Bengali Muslim herself, disagrees.

She thinks they’re a “disgrace”, both to their families and to their shared community.

My wife is always right.

Until a few days ago, the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, were adorned with posters calling for an end to the siege in Gaza.

Flying atop the gates was the flag of Palestine.

poplar estate

Then someone–and it’s important to find out whom–had the bright idea of replacing that flag with what many in the area took to be something more sinister.

I received a tip-off about it last night. I was told the black “ISIS” flag was flying there. I was sent a dark grainy photograph but it was difficult to make it out.

So I stopped by the estate on my way home.

With no wind, only a few Arabic letters were visible on the flag. I took out my phone and started taking pictures from different angles.

A few shouts were thrown my way. A group of five or six youths approached me. They asked what I was doing.

Just taking pictures, I said.

I asked them to explain the black flag. They said it represented their Muslim faith. Then they asked for £5. “It’s our flag, we charge people for taking pictures,” they said.

I tried to keep it light-hearted: I joked I was a good photographer; they should be paying me £5.

A few more youths, all of them mid-late teens, a couple a little older, joined the group.

Then one stared at me.

“Are you a Jew?” he asked.

I’m not. I have a large nose; I fitted his stereotype.

I glared back at him. “What if I were? Would that be a problem for you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”

I looked at one or two of his mates. “Your friend wants to be a bit careful using language like that,” I said.

Another one, apparently more sensible, told him off. This older one then asked whether I was “the police”.

I asked him whether I looked like police. He said I did. I told him if I were, I’d probably be arresting his mate for what he just said.

“You wouldn’t have the balls, man,” he said. “The police don’t have the balls to arrest us.”

The crowd around me had grown again.

“Are you a journalist?” another asked.

Now, I’ve been covering Tower Hamlets for nine years. I’m well known among political activists, and to some I’m a target. A crowd outside the venue for the notorious Tower Hamlets council election count in May started yelling at me when they recognised me walking home.

So on this occasion yesterday, I answered: “What if I were, would that be a problem?”

They said it would be. “We don’t want journos here. They call us terrorists.”

I didn’t count, but I think there were some 15 youths around me by this stage.

Then an older man appeared. He told me to leave for my own safety. He said I was inflaming tensions. “Mate, there’s going to be an incident if you stay,” he warned.

I told him they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anti-Semitic abuse, that they needed to learn intimidation wouldn’t work.

So I told him I was staying.

Then another (white) man appeared. He had a professional camera and took a few photos of the flag. The youths surrounded him; they demanded his camera. They wanted to delete his photos.

The photographer was from The Guardian. Their reporter, Rajeev Syal, appeared next to me. We know each other.

The youths asked who he was. He told them he was a journalist.

“Ah,” they said, pointing at me. “So you are a journalist.”

Then one voice, then several: “F*** off Jews. We don’t want Jews here, f***k off Jews.”

The three of us then headed for the photographer’s car, parked just down the road. They followed us.

More abuse, more demands for the camera, then warnings of violence unless we left.

We left.

The Guardian reported an abridged version of the story this morning. I’m the “passer-by” mentioned in that article.

There’s been some debate whether the black flag was that of ISIS, or merely a symbol of the ‘shahada’, an affirmation of Muslim faith. It was probably the latter.

However, most agree that placing such symbols or words on a black flag has violent jihadist overtones; replacing the Palestinian flag for that one was a provocative act.

About five minutes’ walk away from the Will Crooks estate is the Tower Hamlets town hall.

There last week, the borough’s directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ordered the flag of Palestine be raised as a “humanitarian gesture of solidarity” with Gaza.

His decision created national headlines.

Some applauded his principles; others worried his action would stoke the fires of division, that his example would somehow legitimise hatred among those less able, or willing, to spot the difference between the policies of an Israeli government and the views of the British Jewish community at large.

But to the mayor’s credit, when he heard about the incident in Poplar last night, he asked council officials to have the black flag taken down.

In actual fact, the flag was removed before they arrived this morning… by the community activist I mentioned earlier.

FLAG REMOVED

However, Mr Rahman said: “I will not stand for anti-Semitism or any other form of hate in this borough.

“I am deeply concerned by media reports of abusive language and will be liaising closely with the police on this matter.”

The bigger, troubling question for him, however, is does he have a problem with a significant section of the youths in his borough?

It may well be that yesterday’s incident was just local hooligans looking for a cause and identity, and acting territorially on their estate.

But I think there’s probably more to it than that. They seemed to want a Jew-free zone.

The conflict in Gaza has unleashed what I think has been latent anti-Semitism in the minds or far too many in Tower Hamlets.

A few years ago, I was called ‘Ted Jewry’ by one former councillor.

He later apologised.

But social media, particularly during Ramadan, when the violence in Gaza was at its peak, was awash with pro-Hitler prejudice against Jews.

The terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist’ have been used interchangeably as a form of abuse.

And all this from sections of a Muslim community that has quite understandably felt aggrieved at rising levels of Islamophobia directed their way in recent years.

Every year, a delegation from Tower Hamlets marches to a nearby mural in Cable Street to pay homage to the Jews and anti-fascists who stood firm in 1936 against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.

The East End defeated anti-Semitism in that battle.

Now, it must beware of its rebirth.

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