Out of Africa

A British  judge suggests, quite fairly, that my views about public service broadcasting have been influenced by my exposure to apartheid in South Africa. It’s hard to tell whether I’d be more complacent if I was English. But I do think the right to freedom of thought and conscience is the discotheque of democracy. And so Maistry v UK has been a disappointing one- night stand. The application was dismissed by the European Court of Human Rights some four years after Maistry v BBC  began its journey to an equally limp finale in the Court of Appeal last summer.

The case attracted a flood of legal reportage in 2011 when it established that a belief in the higher purpose of public service broadcasting was a ‘philosophical belief’. That’s the device used in Britain to legally protect people from discrimination because they hold  serious secular beliefs. Despite the advance warning there was no media coverage of a month long trial in which ten BBC managers and a celebrity presenter gave evidence.

A pity really. As a journalist you know you’re in for a good time when a  senior BBC executive confesses he thought the ‘Morning Star’ was the early edition of ‘The Daily Star’. And the rest of this all star cast were equally good value. A vivacious, cheerful and titled manager said she had not read a lengthy complaint sent to her although she had quoted from the same document in her decision dismissing the grievance. She had several goes at explaining to an amused assessor, to the point of asking off her own bat whether she was making any sense.  Finally she said her secretary must have put in those embarrassing passages without telling her.

At any rate the case went unreported while scandal followed scandal, in the Murdoch empire,  at the BBC and in the ‘big society’ at large. And there’s loads more to come.  But even this self evident corrosion of public life is an inadequate explanation for why the Corporation (whose public purposes include representing and bringing the UK to the world) would so recklessly confess to a Tribunal that the hallowed Values – on which its international reputation is built –  are really just so much corporate fluff.  To so easily undermine a hard asset in Britain’s drive to become the leading exporter of democracy requires more than cock-up.

To go on. True to form it appears that the protection of thought and conscience in the UK is as much a fiction as  constitutional virginity in the Rainbow Nation. Nelson Mandela, arms outstretched, still smiles on Parliament Square in Westminster. After all the new South Africa, like its predecessor, was made in Britain.  More of that later.

The existence of a  ‘philosophical belief’ can only be established by a Tribunal. Until then, according to the Court of Appeal, the BBC could not have had knowledge of the claimant’s belief in the BBC’s Values as a ‘philosophical belief’. This is perfectly true. There is in fact no  practical use in establishing such a belief.  An employer can simply deny knowledge of a ‘philosophical belief’ at the relevant time of abuse, harassment and dismissal. Jam tomorrow and yesterday, of course.

A useful overview of a case which has involved ten judges – at least – is provided in the ECHR Application:23-10-2014 filed under A Case Note.

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