Tuesday, July 23, 2024

David Hundeyin Digs Into BBC, Exposes Nepotism, Bullying, HR Malpractice, Suicide Attempt

Read the post by David Hundeyin:

The first thing one learns in this line of business is the maxim “There is never just one cockroach.” Journalists, private investigators and short sellers are taught to live by this saying as they hunt for information about organisations that do not always appreciate exposure. In his book “Money Men: A Hot Startup, a Billion Dollar Fraud, a Fight for the Truth,” Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum explains how chasing down the single “cockroach” of accounting fraud at Wirecard ballooned in front of his eyes, ultimately turning into a story that involved air gapped computers, secret document pickups in Singapore, a cross-border Russian spy operation, Libyan mercenaries and ultimately a €24bn corporate collapse that rocked Europe’s largest economy.

The problem for a journalist interested in the inner working of BBC West Africa, is an altogether different one. Rather than struggle to identify a single cockroach and then follow its trail to find more cockroaches, one is immediately confronted with what looks like several cockroaches. Nigeria’s media space is not a very big one, and there is never a shortage of whispers about scandals at that organisation. Upon closer inspection however, these “cockroaches” have almost inevitably turned out to be mere hints of cockroach activity. Lots of rumour but little substance. All icing and no cake. Lots of flavour, but little food.

BBC Africa Lagos Bureau

“This person was employed because they are so-and-so’s family member.” “So and so are publicly having an affair even though one reports directly to the other. They even audibly have sex in the office.” “So and so had sex with that and the other to get into a BBC production without having any formal qualifications.” “HR at BBC West Africa is nonexistent.” “So and so is such a bad office bully that they made so and so resign and quit journalism for good.” The gossip and rumours come thick and fast, but invariably, when it is time for anyone to provide documentation or go on record, the are-they-are-they-not-cockroaches disappear, and nothing is ever established.

This all started to change on Sunday, December 13, 2020, when Ogechi Obidiebube, a broadcast journalist working at the BBC Lagos Bureau decided that she had had enough. Over the course of 2 alcohol-fueled hours, she poured out her angst, referencing the things she claimed to have gone through in the hands of her superiors and the the BBC’s notoriously cavernous hierarchy. Unfortunately, the episode did not end well for her, culminating in a livestreamed suicide attempt that left her in hospital for the next 2 months. The BBC subsequently fired her, and to all intents and purposes, that was the end of that.

What the decision makers in Lagos, Dakar and London did not know was that – ill advised as it might have seemed at the time – Ogechi’s self-immolating act of defiance had started a fire in the minds of her colleagues in Lagos, Abuja and Dakar. Previously, under strict instruction from the organisation, they would never dare to speak publicly about their experiences – even after leaving the BBC. Now however, having witnessed the near-death of their colleague, they were finally ready to do away with their silence. For the first time ever, current and former BBC Africa employees and contractors started to reach out in numbers to those they believed could tell their stories. I was one of such people.

The following 3 stories, taken from extensive testimonies and documentation provided by BBC Africa staff in Dakar, Abuja and Lagos, are the culmination of nearly 2 years of research and interviews. On an individual basis, they paint the picture of an organisation with huge gaps in corporate governance and a massive HR malpractice problem. Taken from a wider angle, they form part of the bigger picture of a dysfunctional British public institution that according to some, shouldn’t even exist in its current form. While it suffers from the same intractable internal governance problems at home, nowhere are these failings more greatly magnified than at its weakly-regulated outposts in West Africa.

Our journey begins in Dakar, Senegal.

The American Editor From Hell

“Since her inception as BBC Afrique Editor on October 8th 2019, an alarming number of journalists have left the BBC in order to preserve their mental health. She thrives on resorting to bullying and harassment to force people she dislikes out of the BBC [especially] any journalist who generally does not feel indebted to her.”

Anne Look Thiam

Zaïnabou Mohamed Hassane was a freelance journalist who started on the way to what she thought was living her dream in 2019. Ahead of the presidential election in Senegal, the BBC’s Dakar bureau, which was then without an office head, took her on to cover the polls as a freelancer. She later got the opportunity to apply for a full time role at the bureau and she took it. After making it past all the application stages, she received an invitation to a final interview round to be conducted by a board made up of 3 people – the new BBC Afrique Editor, Anne Look Thiam and Senior Broadcast Journalists Godlove Kamawa and Claude Foly.

Describing what happened next, Zainab said:

So, come the day of the interview, I arrive and I was waiting in the newsroom for my turn. When the time came, it was Mrs. Anne who came to call me herself. Just before entering the interview room, she asked me a question which had no connection with the interview. “Were you the one who worked at Ouest TV?” I said yes. “Do you know Coumba?” I answered yes. And there, alas, it clicked in my head, I said it’s over. I’m not going to succeed in this interview, everything is sealed.

I specify that Mrs. Anne saw me every day in the editorial office and knew what I was doing as work for the elections and she never stopped me to ask me if I knew the lady in question. It was on the day of the interview that she asked me about her. Then 10 days later, I got the answer that I was not selected. I asked myself the question several times: why did Mrs. Anne ask me that day if I knew this person? What did that have to do with the interview? There were a lot of questions running through my head. Did I fail because I was not up to it? Or is it simply related to Anne’s question about this Coumba? Who knows.

Unknown to her, what she had stumbled into was the epicentre of the Dakar Bureau’s corporate governance black hole. It would later emerge that “Coumba” was not only one of Anne’s closest friends, but was in fact married to Ouzin Ndiaye, a close friend of Anne’s husband, Charles Thiam. And – get this – Anne had supervised the hiring of Ouzin as a video journalist at the Dakar Bureau. Conflict of interest be damned.

Even more incredibly, she had supervised the hiring of one Hamet Fall Diagne, a close friend and former roommate of her husband, as a Senior Broadcast Journalist. Mr. Diagne, by the way, had no formal qualifications and his greatest career highlight up until that point was directing the first ever web series in Senegal to be filmed entirely on a smartphone.

Somehow, he went directly from this to becoming an SBJ at one of the world’s largest media organisations, and no questions were asked. To put this in its truly ridiculous perspective, Ruona Meyer who headlined the Emmy-nominated 2018 BBC Africa Eye “Sweet Sweet Codeine” documentary was a BBC Africa SBJ at the time. Yet despite clearly being at a more advanced career stage and at a different skill level to Mr. Diagne, they would both apparently share the same job title and seniority level in the same region of the same organisation.

If this sounds suspiciously like the sort of corporate governance shenanigans and HR malpractice that abounds at thousands of mom-and-pop SMEs from Dakar to Ouagadougou, that’s because that is exactly what you are looking at. At the BBC Dakar Bureau, you see, Anne Look Thiam’s word is law. Zainab would later find out that because she had a preexisting feud with Anne’s good friend Coumba, she was never going to get the job. From the moment she confirmed that she was Zainab from Ouest TV, the same one who had beef with Anne’s friend, that door was already closed.

Corporate governance and conflict of interest be damned.

The following comprehensive complaint about Anne Look-Thiam’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa tribute act was submitted earlier this year. In it, Mrs. Look-Thiam’s habit of descending into screaming fits and ordering staff around at the Dakar bureau were detailed. There are no prizes for guessing what the BBC did with this information. The same thing it always does – nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

I got my hands on an email exchange and a few pay slips that confirm the vast salary discrimination that takes place at the Dakar Bureau. In the exchange below, Rose-Marie Bouboutou, a Senior Broadcast Journalist complains that she is being paid up to 35 percent less than other SBJs for no discernible reason. Even after the negotiation, the improved offer is still nearly 19 percent less than the average for an SBJ in Dakar. No explanation is volunteered for this inexplicable disparity.

In addition to being unjustifiable, this, it turns out is also illegal under Senegalese law. Not that Senegalese law matters especially much to the Anne Look-Thiam regime, as former BBC Afrique journalist Jacques Matand Diyambi found out. In November 2019, Diyambi conducted an interview with Charles Onana, author of the book “Rwanda, the Truth about Operation Turquoise: When the Archives Speak.” Onana is considered an enemy of state in Kigali for his views on the 1994 genocide, which contradict the official version of history.

In February 2020, Anne Look-Thiam fired Diyambi, stating on his dismissal letter

“We have established that your actions were clearly contrary to BBC editorial policy and that you took the initiative to conduct an interview on a controversial subject without following the necessary rules and without referring the matter to the necessary officials. Our request for explanations was in response to the Rwandan government’s complaint about the interview you conducted with Charles Onana. The Rwandan government accuses the BBC of being unfair, biased and inaccurate and has indicated that it reserves the right to take sanctions against the BBC.”

There were 2 obvious problems with this. First of all, the mere accusation of bias and threat of sanction by a regime that is hardly a shining light for press freedom even by African standards, has never been enough to fire a journalist. Second, even if the journalist in question did in fact violate ethics to the point of being sacrificed to appease the Rwandan regime, the Kagame regime itself then denied having ever made a complaint in the first place. So why exactly was Diyambi fired?

The Dakar Labour Court posed the same question to the BBC, and got no satisfactory answer. Consequently, the court ruled that there was no evidence that Diyambi had made a professional error, which made his termination an “unfair dismissal.” The BBC was ordered to pay 10 million CFA in compensation to Diyambi. His response to the verdict was very telling.

“Of course, I would never return to the BBC after the treatment I received, but I am always passionate about my work.”

Peter And The Wolves

“My life is in danger due to threats I am facing because BBC staff in London, despite my clear reservations, unilaterally edited and selectively promoted sensational digital cuts taken from the film, to a global audience, without taking into account, and putting into context, the consequences of the harm and offence BBC’s actions would cause.”

In May 2021, a BBC Africa Eye documentary called “Nigeria’s Ordinary President” was released. Presented by Peter Nkanga, a BBC stringer, the documentary profiled the methods of Ahmad Isah, the controversial talk show host behind Brekete Family on Abuja’s Human Rights Radio 101.1FM. Its primary purpose was to examine how Isah gets the results that inspire his fanatic following, and to analyse how private individuals like him – for better or for worse – are filling the gaps left by Nigeria’s highly inefficient justice system.

Or at least, that was the documentary that Peter shot.

The documentary that premiered on May 16, 2021 was something completely different. Speaking to me, Peter stated that despite his insistence on being part of the editing and post-production in London, the BBC refused, and left him entirely out of that process. The result he says, was a documentary that focused attention on sensational cuts, such as the infamous scene where Isah slapped a woman, while almost completely failing to deliver on its actual premise.

What happened next became a nightmare that Peter has still not woken up from almost 18 months later. An enraged Ahmad Isah, feeling as though he had been set up by Peter – someone he knew personally and had worked with previously – promptly went on air and accused Peter and the BBC of plotting to kill him. In a rambling series of accusations, Isah accused Peter and the BBC of collaborating to destroy the image of Africa, and even trying to honeytrap him using Peter’s wife.

Peter’s personal phone number was also put out but – conveniently – not by Isah himself. Speaking to me a few weeks ago from an unknown location where he remains in hiding, Peter made a wry remark along the lines of “It’s all well and good including “the BBC” in that accusation, but “the BBC” is not a person that can be targeted. Peter Nkanga is.”

For a radio host commands the level of dedicated followership that Ahmad Isah does, this was the same thing as declaring a fatwa on Peter. The radio station’s operating licence would be temporarily suspended a few days later, but by then the damage had been done.

Amidst the 6-lane highways, wide streets, cookie-cutter suburbs and general newness of Abuja, there are very few hiding places for a journalist who just had the largest of targets placed on his back by a celebrity radio host whose primary constituency is drivers, security guards, cooks, street traders and cleaners – all of whom are fanatically loyal to him. To put it in proper context, there would be greater chance of successfully hiding from the police than of escaping detection by Isah’s volunteer network of dedicated followers across Nigeria’s capital.

Peter needed to get out of Abuja – and fast. So he did what any BBC journalist in a dangerous situation would do – he reached out to the BBC and requested help with temporarily relocating his family out of harm’s way. The BBC responded with an offer to house the family temporarily in a hotel under his wife’s name. He pointed out that this was a nonsensical idea, since his wife was just as known as he was. His counter-offer was to use a friend’s name to book the hotel room so as to avoid leaving any records that could be used by Ahmad Isah’s followers. The BBC declined, insisting that he should use his wife’s name or it would not pay for the hotel accommodation.

Getting desperate and frustrated at the BBC’s intransigence, Peter reached out to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) with his predicament. The CPJ put out an alert followed by a couple of tweets about it. A contact at the CPJ then informed Peter that the BBC had reached out to her asking to stop posting about Peter Nkanga, ostensibly to protect its own reputation. Peter Nkanga and his family could end up as Ahmad Isah’s roadkill for all the BBC cared – just don’t post anything that could make it look like it was not protecting its journalist – which it wasn’t.

Ignoring the hundreds of threatening messages pouring into Peter’s phone and social media mentions from enraged followers of a budding cult leader whose tail they had stepped on, the BBC’s Tom Watson and Marina Forsythe insisted that Peter was in no real danger. He was only being a bit of a drama queen, you see.

In a subsequent petition sent to London, Peter expressed his frustration at how the entire problem was created by the BBC’s Africa Eye team, which then outsourced the consequences of its own decisions to him. To add insult to injury, the BBC even went on to owe Peter the balance of his project payment for over one year afterward.

The legendary London-based law firm Schillings found enough merit in Peter’s case to take it on pro-bono, and its legal opinion available in full here, lays out in plain English, the extent to which BBC Africa has violated its own internal guidelines and displayed an utter lack of direction, corporate governance and leadership

To date, Peter remains in hiding, separated from his family for their own safety. The weirdest part of all this, he tells me, is that Ahmad Isah knows very well that he never set out to cause him any harm. All of this, he says, is a complex act set up by Ahmad to protect his image as a powerful saviour. Whereas his hundreds of thousands of loyal foot soldiers believe that Ahmad solves people’s problems, Ahmad actually solves a few people’s problems, and then goes to town with the 1 success story out of every 15 cases brought to him. The other 14 never get followed up on or receive any subsequent coverage.

Peter’s big crime in Ahmad’s eyes, was not being the face of a documentary that showed him slapping a woman. Peter’s crime was actually being the face of a documentary that showed Ahmad as he truly is – a self-promoter who goes back on his word after loudly making promises, and a man is not as powerful as he makes himself out to be. For someone who may be planning a run for public office in future, there can be no worse fate than being demystified.

BBC Africa meanwhile, continues doing what it does best – complete and utter silence. In one of our recent conversations, Peter remarked:

“It feels like the BBC would prefer for me to just disappear. They would like for me to just go away somehow.”

A Journalist, a Documentary and a Suicide Attempt

“Hello David. Toyosi has been also harassing male staff in Dakar bureau. She was sleeping with a BJ Godlove Kamwa from Cameroon. She managed to appoint him SBJ. The guy finally left when the staff learned that they were sleeping together. He is now in Canada. Another Cameroonian guy who was the editor of the French service, BBC Afrique also left because of her harassment.”

Toyosi Ogunseye

Toyosi Ogunseye is many things to many people. To most people, she is a former Punch News editor who was hired to head BBC West Africa in 2017, and the current vice president of the World Editors Forum. To a reliable source that did not agree to be named, she is a social climbing opportunist who had a child for the (married) Chairman of Punch Newspapers, and rose around the s

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