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Pleasing Takki

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.

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Here’s an interesting insight into the mindset of Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

On December 7, Giles Broadbent, the editor of The Wharf newspaper, wrote a strongly worded opinion column detailing his exasperation with Lutfur’s refusal to answer questions from either members of the public or councillors at full council meetings.

At the previous meeting, opposition councillors fired a whole series of allegations his way, questioning whether council resources had been misused to help his re-election campaign. The council also voted to launch an investigation into claims by the Love Wapping blog that people purporting to work for Tower Hamlets Homes were canvassing for Lutfur during the day.

On each of these questions, Lutfur, though visibly reddening and seething, remained silent. Instead, he exercised his “right” to delegate the answers to his cabinet councillors who then stumbled and mumbled their way through the explanations.

Giles quite rightly thought this shameful.

Here’s part of what he wrote:

And what did the man himself have to say about all this at a recent council meeting when challenged? Furious denial? Tearful apology? The mayor said nothing. Being made to answer to the people “is contrary to his human rights”.

To the rest of the world, this continuing policy of silence is a joke, a punchline to a risible tale of East End lunacy. To the residents of Tower Hamlets, it is a serious and barbarous insult that damages their prosperity.

Compare Tower Hamlets to Newham. Both struck by terrible social and structural problems. Yet Newham – far from perfect – is at least outward looking and positive. It has embraced the Olympics and the Docks in order to share the dividends of growth.

Mr Rahman’s Tower Hamlets is backward, self-indulgent and dim. It is ripped apart by factionalism and stymied by cronyism. And the mayor, who sits atop this stinking pile, has nothing to offer but a sulk – truly a slap in the face for the residents who crave a future, not a
fiefdom.

It is to be hoped in the 2014 election the man who has tried so hard to undermine the principle of democratic accountability will feel the potency of its sting.

Lutfur took this rather badly and feeling the sting of The Wharf’s right to free speech in an opinion column based on the events of a full council meeting, Lutfur penned a letter of reply, which has been added to the original article. Here it is:

“Your column, ‘Spiral Notebook’; ‘Rahman’s insult to Tower Hamlets’, contains a series of gross inaccuracies and unfair innuendoes.

Surely, The Wharf has a responsibility to report and comment fairly? On the basis of this particular column it would appear that neither you nor your newspaper intends to do so in the run up to the Mayoral and local government elections in May.

You made no attempt to contact this council’s communications department or me, before publishing what amounts to a series of gross inaccuracies and innuendoes.

You have made direct allegations relating to the use of branded letters.

Such allegations are very serious and potentially imply a breach of electoral law.
The actual complaint relates to unbranded, council acknowledgement letters sent pursuant to casework.

The allegations that bogus representatives from the social housing company were using their access to residents in Wapping to flog [my] re-election bid are also completely untrue.

Cllr Alibor Choudhury categorically refuted these allegations, also made by the local Labour Party, in Full Council on 27 November. I also categorically refuted these claims in Cabinet on Wednesday 4 December. My rebuttal and that of Councillor Choudhury were carried in the East London Advertiser on Monday 2 December.

How, in these circumstances, you could run with these heavily contested and baseless allegations, let alone print them without putting them to me, is beyond me.

Similar claims have been made before, and the resulting police investigations have consistently found them to be baseless and a waste of police time.

Your comparisons between Tower Hamlets and Newham are insulting and inane. You may be interested to learn that not a single question has been asked of Mayor Sir Robin Wales, in any meeting of full council in the past seven months. In Tower Hamlets most of the political parties are represented. In Newham, all sixty councillors are from Sir Robin Wales’ party.

Perhaps The Wharf prefers a ‘one party borough’ solution?

I have never claimed that answering questions would ‘breach my human rights’ as you claim. I simply delegate the business of council to lead councillors, as is common-place in other local authorities.

I attend hundreds of public meetings where I am directly accountable to electors (rather than to opposition parties who were roundly rejected at the last election but by mere virtue of the electoral cycle continue to boast a majority in the chamber) and hold frequent press conferences where you and other journalists are welcome to hold me to account.

As a regular contributor to The Wharf, I had come to expect a whole lot better from your newspaper. I do hope that normal service may be resumed shortly.

Some who have read that last paragraph believe it’s an implied threat to withdraw his frequent offers of editorial magic. I’m not so sure it is, but if so…how the editors of the Bengali press must quake…

And as for his statement he holds frequent press conferences, does he? I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to one.

Anyway, let’s all applaud Lutfur’s determination to hold himself to account and also his championing of free speech.

I mean, free speech without intimidation and threats is a good thing right?

So what was Lutfur’s response to Anjem Choudary’s trip down Brick Lane last Friday when his Shariah Project groupies handed out mock-legal leaflets warning Bengali restaurateurs they faced hellfire or 40 lashes (take your pick!) for selling booze?

The East London Advertiser reports him saying:

We strongly believe in the right to free speech and association, and I am pleased that, with the police’s support, this group were able to exercise that right whilst upholding respect for our communities, which is the hallmark of our ‘No Place for Hate’ pledge.

He has to be kidding, right? Exactly what respect was Anjem showing to those he wants burnt in hell? Let’s remember that included in Amjem’s band of supporters are those convicted or terror and hate-related offences.

Only nine days ago, Anjem was reported in the Standard as saying the Muslim Patrol thugs who were convicted this month for abusing and attacking non-Muslims in Tower Hamlets deserved a “pat on the back”.

So isn’t Lutfur effectively saying, ‘You’re welcome to come back to protest and intimidate in Tower Hamlets any time you like?’

Which is a bit different to the message he rightly sends to that other fascist group, the English Defence League, which also claimed it merely wanted to exercise free speech.

I wonder if Lutfur, with this potential ‘one rule for one’ mentality secretly wants to provoke another visit by the EDL before next May.

By way of contrast, here are the thoughts of Labour group leader Sirajul Islam and the Muslim Council of Britain on Anjem’s visit:

Cllr Sirajul Islam, leader of the Labour group, said: “While Muslims may choose to abstain from alcohol, it is not right to forcefully push one view upon others.”

He added: “Provocative attempts to push a radical Sharia agenda will serve only to widen the divide between our communities, especially in light of the recent challenges we have faced from the EDL and so called ‘Muslim patrols’.”

Salman Farsi from the London Muslim Centre said: “While Islam may prohibit the consumption and sale of alcohol for Muslims, it is not for any particular groups to impose those views on others, nor bully other communities.”

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