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Archive for August, 2010

Clearly, this very amateur photo was taken before tonight’s deluge, but it has still managed to create a storm of its own. It’s an O2 mobile phone mast. Dumped in the middle of Victoria Park, less than a minute’s walk from a toddlers’ playground.

It’s been there since the beginning of July, powered by a noisy, fume-spewing diesel generator 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I asked Tower Hamlets council’s press office on Monday last week why it was there, what planning permission it had, what consultation there was with people who live around the park, and whether the council was charging a fee for it.

Nine days later, the department run by the strangely comical £100,000-a-year Takki Sulaiman, sent me its response. Here it is: “Mobile providers sometimes look to install temporary masts to cope with the high usage of their networks during big events. In this case O2 approached the council for a licence to erect a mast for Lovebox. As the mast was to be there for a temporary period no planning permission or consultation was required.

“Following Lovebox, O2 requested if they could extend their licence up until the LED Festival on 27 and 28 August. The mast will be removed the week beginning 30 August 2010. This has been a trial and in future we will insist that the mast is removed at the end of each event.”

For those of us who live in Tower Hamlets, Victoria Park is an absolute treasure, largely because it is so unspoilt. But over the last few years, people who live near it have grown increasingly fed up with how the council has exploited it over the summer months by hiring it out for festivals and gigs (personally, I think it’s good to show the borough off, but saturation point has now been reached). When residents protested about this last year, the council said it was listening. Only to then whore itself to O2 without asking any of those residents for their views.

I’ve asked the council how much money it is charging O2. So far they’ve declined to say. And this is one case when councillors can’t be blamed because officers never even told them about it.

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In March 2009, as Andrew Gilligan began researching the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary that was to appear a year later, I interviewed, independently, a few of the central characters who would later be central to that programme. Although I was to appear in the documentary, my interviews were not commissioned by Dispatches.

I revisited them this week after the PCC ruling in the case of Abjol Miah versus the Telegraph. I thought it would be useful to publish those conversations which were on the record.

Below is a transcript of an interview with Mohammad Habibur Rahman, the then president of the Islamic Forum of Europe. Except for a couple of small sections I’ve omitted for legal reasons, it’s verbatim. There is a picture of Mr Rahman on the IFE website here (he’s the man reading a speech on the right of the stage at a 2006 Trafalgar Square rally against the Danish cartoons. He’s standing next to Anas Al Takriti, of the Muslim Association of Britain, and Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain).

TJ: You’re president of IFE, aren’t you?

HR: I am.

TJ: IFE has been in the news recently with Azad Ali and with a few other issues, but I also know there are many councillors [in Tower Hamlets] who say they are really worried about the direction IFE is taking in terms of what its purpose is, if it’s trying to direct the politics of Tower Hamlets at council level and also in other areas of Britain. Are you able to talk about that now?

HR: I’m in the middle of my lunch…but when you say lots of people are talking, who are these lots of people?

TJ: Well, I’m a journalist and I’m sure you will understand that I don’t divulge those sources.

HR: Well, it’s news to me. I don’t know what I can add if I don’t know what people are talking about.

TJ: What they’re saying is that IFE has an agenda to try and control politics within Tower Hamlets and in other areas of the country in terms of its religious agenda and its adherence to the Shariah.

HR: Based on what? Where are they making these assertions from? From our website, or things that we have been saying? Where are these things coming from? It’s all news to me.

TJ: They’re saying it from their own personal contacts and experience and from people within the politics of east London.

HR: Hmm, and what is it that you’re after?

TJ: Well, one of the things that they’re saying is that there’s a deliberate agenda by IFE to infiltrate the Labour party and that it already has done and also it is also very closely allied with people like Lutfur Rahman at Tower Hamlets council, that it’s helping to get its agenda through and money is then directed back through to various community groups that IFE is involved with or supports, and it helps direct a block vote when it comes to elections against MPs who don’t support IFE or against councillors who don’t support IFE.

HR: Hmm. I think it would be very useful if we met some time and talked about these things. We have a history of working with all kinds of politicians in the past history for several years now and I think if you look at the work of IFE, we are engaged in the community and we have been also encouraging people to participate in politics without being partisan. So to make claims that we are trying to direct or take control is all ludicrous. It’s important that we do fit in the community. It’s important for community empowerment that they participate the political process. In the past, there have been Muslims who have been saying that politics here and participating here and voting, all of these are disallowed or haram in Islam, and we’ve said exactly the opposite and that we need to engage, you need to participate, but we will never tell you who you should vote for; you should talk to individuals and see the agenda of the parties and see the agenda of the individuals and, according to your needs and requirements, you should go cast your vote. So we have been doing some very positive work over the last few years – several years in fact – and we have worked with the Labour party who have been there before in the sense that we’ve encouraged them to do things that would be helpful for the community. And this includes people like [Helal] Abbas and Michael Keith in the past, and so on and so forth. So to say that IFE has got an agenda, IFE has got an agenda as much as anybody else.

TJ: What is your agenda then, if you say that you have an agenda?

HR: Participate as citizens in this civic society and engage in the process.

TJ: Do you then have various groups and pet projects that you would like to see public money directed towards?

HR: Not necessarily, no. I don’t think we have any influence over that. Anybody who is doing the work, and I don’t have the statistics to say who Tower Hamlets are supporting, but there are lots of projects that are being supported and they should be supported.

TJ: You’re a national group as well, aren’t you? Can you just talk to me a little more about it? There maybe a lack of understanding on a lot of people’s parts…there’s not too much information on your web, for example.

HR: We are national in the sense that our office is obviously in Tower Hamlets, but we do have work in other cities where we try to engage with primarily young Bangladeshis, but not exclusively.

TJ: Why primarily Bangladeshis?

HR: That’s how it’s evolved. We don’t have an agenda to work only with Bangladeshis.

TJ: Who founded IFE?

HR: Quite a few people who originate from Bangladesh.

TJ: Was [MCB management committee member] Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin involved at the beginning?

HR: Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin with IFE? Probably not, but he was around before that in some Islamic work. Dr Abdul Bari is the one who was the first president I believe.

TJ: I understand that Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin was one of the founders.

HR: I don’t know if he was one of the founders, but he was involved with organisations prior to that.

TJ: Is there a link between IFE and Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh?

HR: No. No, there isn’t. Only in so far as Jamaat e Islami is an Islamic organisation in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and others, and we also happen to be an Islamic organisation and Islam is the common ground.

TJ: Do you support Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh?

HR: What does that mean?

TJ: Do you back them, do you support their views?

HR: Which views?

TJ: Well, you tell me what Jamaat e Islami in Bangladesh is trying to achieve.

HR: Jamaat e Islami is an Islamic organisation, they are a political party. They are trying to progress their, I suppose their Islamic agenda in Bangladesh.

TJ: Do you support that?

HR: Do we support their work in Bangladesh?

TJ: Yes.

HR: We support them working in Bangladesh, yes. But don’t quote me as someone who supports the work of Jamaat e Islami, but I’m more focused here in the UK.

TJ: But you just said you do support the work they do in Bangladesh..?

HR: We support anybody who does Islamic work, everywhere in the world. That doesn’t tie us in with Jamaat e Islami in the way that some people want to do and are keen to do.

TJ: But it’s the same thing though, surely, if you support the work they’re trying to do, then you’re supporting them, aren’t you?

HR: Well, no, because a lot of people attach a lot of stigma with this party and what I said to you is that you should quote me in saying that, that we support anybody who is working for Islam. But then if you attach all this stigma and there are people who say they’re a violent party and they’ve done this and they’ve done that, certainly we don’t support any of that, so I think that we have to be careful because there are a lot of people in the community who say, “Jamaat e Islami: they’re a radical organisation.” We have nothing to do with radicalism.

TJ: Is there a membership structure to IFE? Do people sign up? How does it work in that way?

HR: No, historically people haven’t. Anybody who has been attending our events and programmes and attaches themselves with us, they’ve just effectively became members. We are moving towards formalising these kind of things so people do sign up.

TJ: So at the moment, you don’t actually have members, it’s more a kind of group in which people support?

HR: I can’t produce paperwork to show that I am an official member of IFE. There is membership.

TJ: So is Lutfur Rahman, the council leader, is he a supporter of IFE?

HR: Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll have to ask him that!

TJ: How long have you been IFE president?

HR: Four years now.

TJ: Who else is on the management board? How does it work and what is the committee structure?

HR: IFE is an organisation and there are elected members who serve for a term.

TJ: Who else is on the committee then?

HR: How do you mean?

TJ: Well, you’re president…who else is actually on the management structure?

HR: Who else? Well, it would be good for us to sit and talk. Are you just looking for names, we’ve got about 20 people who are managing the organisation

TJ: The other name that’s always mentioned is [Tower Hamlets council children's services officer] Hira Islam.

HR: Hira? You see, I think someone is trying to push an agenda with you.

TJ: Well, that might well be the case, but that’s why I’m coming to you to talk to you about it.

HR: Hira Islam is part of IFE, of course he is, but he is also very involved with the Labour party. He’s a member of the Labour party, so he knows a lot of people and people say that because he is working with us, people probably think that he is trying to push an agenda on our behalf.

TJ: What about [Tower Hamlets Labour party official] Humayun Kabir?

HR: I’m not aware that he is a member of IFE although we know him well.

TJ: But you just said to me that you don’t have members…?

HR: People who claim to be members, not a membership as such.

TJ: Hira is closer to IFE than Humayun, because Humayun is either a friend or a supporter, I don’t know.

TJ: What about [Tower Hamlets councillors] Alibor Choudhury and Abdal Ullah?

HR: Abdal Ullah? He is not a member, he hasn’t been involved with IFE directly. I know that he has worked with some of us, who have worked with the LMC [London Muslim Centre] when it was constructed and in fact he was quite keen in getting some child care projects within it. Alibor, again, is someone within the community who is active in politics and we have associations with him, but he is far too busy with his politics to do anything else. Yes, so we know these people because we are very much involved in the community. We know most of the councillors. You can name all the councillors and I can tell you, yes we know them, and they’ve worked with us in one or another capacity because we are in the community.

TJ: You have people who are actively involved within the Labour party and you hope that they will do the work that you will be supportive of?

HR: We like people to be involved in the community, including politics. And we want the same for other people in the community to do the same. But that doesn’t mean there’s an organisational agenda as such.

TJ: What about Azad Ali?

HR: What about Azad Ali…?

TJ: Is he a member?

HR: Yeah, he’s a member.

TJ: Well, thank you…..I will return to put what you’ve said to the people who came to me.

HR: Listen, feel free to come to me directly. There are some people who are attributing far too much to IFE. It is true that we have been working with the community for a long time. I work in the London Metropolitan University  and I am very much interested in education, but I make no secret of my work in the community to the university and there is work that we want to do. If it is hurting some people’s political agendas, this is not the intention: all we want to do is see that people are active in the community whatever they happen to be, including politicians.

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Abjol Miah, IFE and PCC

Last March, Andrew Gilligan presented a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary (in which I appeared) about the links between various politicians in Tower Hamlets and the Islamic Forum of Europe, a lobby group based at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel. Andrew also wrote series of articles and blog posts here, here, here and here on the same subject for the Daily Telegraph and its sister Sunday title.

These pieces and that documentary have become THE backdrop to the ongoing campaign to become Tower Hamlets mayor. They contained heavy reference to former Labour council leader Lutfur Rahman and ex-Respect councillor Abjol Miah. The latter was described as a “senior activist” in IFE. The articles pointed out that he was not a member.

Following publication, Abjol complained to the Press Complaints Commission that his denial of “senior activism” had not been published. He further complained that the Telegraph had failed to provide him, prior to publication, with specific evidence to back up its allegations.

The text of the PCC’s ruling can be seen in a press release from Tower Hamlets Respect here (I’ve pasted it below as well). Respect’s spin is that the ruling is a victory for their man, who is likely to be the Respect candidate in the forthcoming Mayoral election. Read the ruling and judge for yourselves. Note, in particular, that the PCC is NOT requiring the Telegraph to print a correction or an apology, which is what Respect and Abjol were after (in that matter, I’ve highlighted in bold the significant paragraph in the ruling).

Commission’s decision in the case of

Miah v The Daily Telegraph

The complainant, a Tower Hamlets councillor and former parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green & Bow, said that the newspaper had significantly misled readers and breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code by publishing the claim that he was a “senior activist in” the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) without making clear that that he had denied having such a relationship with the group. The complainant said that the publication of the claim unaccompanied by his denial would suggest to readers that he had accepted it and that he had previously dishonestly represented his political allegiances.

The complainant considered that the newspaper’s argument was “guilt by association”. He made clear that he did not deny that he had friends and family members in the IFE and had professional links to the IFE, but argued that this did not corroborate the specific claim made by the newspaper. In the complainant’s view, the distinction drawn by the newspaper between senior activism in and membership of a group was spurious and illogical.

The newspaper maintained that there was an important distinction to be made between membership of the group and “senior activism in” the group. The newspaper provided evidence in respect of the complainant’s links to the IFE, including his regular participation in a radio show described in IFE literature as a “project of the IFE” and co-presented by IFE activists; the description of him by a fellow member of the Respect party as a “young member of IFE” in 2007; support he had received from prominent members of the IFE during his election campaign; and his associations with three groups it said have strong ties to the IFE: the Young Muslim Organisation UK, Elite Youth, and the Brick Lane Youth Development Association (Blyda).

Nonetheless, at a late stage in the correspondence it offered to publish the following denial from the complainant at the foot of the blog post: Abjol Miah denies that he is an IFE activist. This was not accepted by the complainant as sufficient resolution of his complaint; he required a public admission by the newspaper that it had erred in failing to publish his denial at the time of the original article and that it had not put to him specific evidence to corroborate the claim prior to publication.

In reaching a view on this matter, the primary concern for the Commission was whether readers would have been significantly misled on two points: the newspaper’s claim that the complainant was a senior activist in the IFE, and its omission of the information that the complainant denied this claim.

The Commission made clear that the newspaper was entitled to put forward its view on the significance of the complainant’s links to the group. It had been able to provide a substantial amount of on-the-record corroborating evidence in correspondence to support the suggestion that the complainant had a number of personal and professional links to the group.  The Commission understood the complainant’s concern that the distinction proposed by the newspaper between being a “senior activist in” a group and a “member” of a group was somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, it had to have regard for the fact that the claim advanced by the newspaper was less definitive than a claim of membership. Against this background, and the points put forward by the newspaper, the Commission did not consider that the complainant had been able to establish that the article had been significantly misleading or inaccurate on this point such that it warranted correction or clarification under the Editors’ Code.

The Commission noted, however, that the evidence provided by the newspaper did not provide complete corroboration of the precise claim it had made. The newspaper had made the claim based on a particular interpretation of the material, which it was open to the complainant to dispute. Although it appeared that the precise claim that had been published had not been put to the complainant for comment, he had strongly denied a number of allegations relating to his connections with the organisation. There did not appear to be any suggestion that the newspaper was unaware of his general view on the matter. Under the circumstances, the Commission considered that by excluding this view the newspaper may have given readers the misleading and inaccurate impression that he accepted this description of his relationship with the organisation. The Commission concluded that there was a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code which merited prompt and explicit remedial action on the part of the newspaper.

The Commission was disappointed at the time it had taken the newspaper to offer this remedy, which had not assisted in the resolution of the complaint. Nonetheless, on balance the Commission considered that the statement offered by the newspaper would clarify the position to readers and acted as a sufficient response to the concerns raised by the complainant. The Commission trusted that this offer would remain open to the complainant.

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I reported here that Terry Fitzpatrick had been charged with racially aggravated harassment. He appeared today at Thames Magistrates’ Court. Below is an account of the events, which is subject to the normal reporting restrictions imposed on such pre-trial proceedings.

TERRY FITZPATRICK, 63, from south Hackney, was today committed to trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court after being charged with racially aggravated harassment of the leaders of the campaign group, Operation Black Vote.

Magistrates in Bow, east London, said they were willing to try, but accepted his request for the case to be heard before a judge and jury.

They then ordered he appear at Snaresbrook, north east London, on September 30 for a plea and case management hearing, which will set a date for his trial.

At today’s hearing, Fitzpatrick, who has been granted legal aid, spoke only to confirm his name, age and address. His defence barrister, Victoria Forbes, indicated he would plead not guilty.

The indictment detailed in court shows he is charged with two counts of racially aggravated harassment.

The first count states that:

Between March 26, 2008, and December 2, 2009, Fitzpatrick pursued a course of conduct which amounted to the harassment of [OBV director] Simon Woolley and which he knew or ought to have known amounted to the harassment of him in that:

1. On March 27, 2008, he sent an abusive and insulting email to OBV in the knowledge that Simon Woolley would read it stating, inter alia, that “when are you black wankers going to get off your black arseholes and actually do some work”;

2. On September 12, 2008, he sent an abusive and insulting email to OBV in the knowledge that Woolley would read it, calling him a “cunt” and, inter alia, “Yo, Bro, Big Up, innit?”?;

3. On February 1, 2009, he sent an abusive and insulting email to OBV in the knowledge that Woolley would read it, calling OBV a racist organisation;

4. On April 8, 2009, he sent an abusive and insulting email to OBV in the knowledge that Woolley would read it, starting with “Big up, innit?”;

5. On December 1, 2009, he sent an abusive, threatening and insulting email to OBV in the knowledge that Woolley would read it, stating that, inter alia, “You have called me a coward, you fucking nigger, so I challenge you to a fight, not just you, but the other two named niggers, I will batter the shit out of your almost black hides”;

6. On several occasions between March 26, 2008, and December 2, 2009, he made physical appearances at or near the premises of OBV where Woolley works during closing times knowing that he would be seen by Woolley and other staff members

and at the same time pursuing the course of conduct was wholly or partly motivated to do so by hostility towards members of a particular racial group, namely Black, based on his membership of such racial group.

Count 2 of the indictment detailed in today’s hearing states:

Between March 26, 2008, and December 2, 2009, Fitzpatrick pursued a course of conduct which amounted to the harassment of the employees of OBV and which he knew or ought to have known amounted to the harassment of them in that:

1. he sent several abusive, threatening and insulting emails to the general email address to which all members had access;

2. on several occasions between March 26, 2008, and December 2, 2009, he made physical appearances at or near the premises of OBV at closing time knowing that he would be seen by the staff members.

and at the same time pursuing the course of conduct was wholly or partly motivated to do so by hostility towards members of a particular racial group, namely Black, based on their membership of such racial group.

Magistrates also re-confirmed Fitzpatrick’s bail conditions, which are not to contact, directly or indirectly, Woolley or [OBV deputy director] Ashok Viswanathan, or any staff of OBV, or to go to or to enter [OBV's office at] 18A Victoria Park Square in Bethnal Green.

Ends

Terry Fitzpatrick intends to represent himself at trial and call some interesting witnesses. It could be lively.

Comments are being disabled for legal reasons.

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Tower Hamlets council’s former interim chief executive and ex-social services director Ian Wilson once told me that Sirajul Islam was the best councillor he’d worked with during his long career in local government. He’s also a Liverpool fan, which proves he’s definitely clever.

Here’s an interview he’s just recorded with Emdad Rahman.

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One of the first documents leaked to me at the East London Advertiser was a report that Tower Hamlets council, then led by Michael Keith, had deemed too confidential and sensitive to be scrutinised in public. It was a discussion paper that was to be debated in cabinet only behind closed doors because it allegedly contained matters of a “commercial nature”. The subject? Rich Mix.

I reported its contents in this article for the ELA in January 2006, four months before Rich Mix was due to open [legal note: the family mentioned in the other story contained on that page was later cleared of benefit fraud]. I’m also pasting the article below:

SERIOUS concerns have been raised about the financial viability of a major new national arts centre that is due to open in the East End later this year.

The Advertiser has obtained a secret report revealing that the Rich Mix Cultural Centre, which is being built in Bethnal Green Road, needs extra taxpayers’ help to meet soaring costs. Tower Hamlets councillors have been asked to top up loans to the project and some are now deeply worried the borough’s £3.5m investment in the £26m centre is at risk.

They are angry that costs have spiralled and are concerned more money is being sucked into what could become a huge white elephant draining the public purse for years to come. One councillor has branded the project ‘scandalous’ and a ‘bottomless pit with no proper business plan’. But his claims have been angrily rejected by the centre’s bosses.

The prestigious arts complex, whose board members include former Bethnal Green and Bow MP Oona King, is seen as crucial for the regeneration of the deprived area around Brick Lane. Concentrating on ethnic cultural projects, it will house BBC London, a three-screen cinema, art galleries, a Sunday market place and music and dance studios.

Ms King dubbed it the East End’s ‘very own Tate Modern’ and it is Mayor Ken Livingstone’s flagship arts project.

With most of the six-storey structure completed, designers are currently working on the internal fittings with the centre due to open in the spring. However, the project, run by the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation and funded by backers including Tower Hamlets council, the Arts Council, the London Development Agency and the Millennium Commission, has been dogged by delays and cash problems.

A new management team was put in place last year and since then cost controls have improved markedly, but some councillors still fear a future financial crisis.

It is expected that by the time the centre opens, Tower Hamlets taxpayers will have paid into it some £3.6m. The council has also pledged a further £300,000 to contribute towards the annual £4.6m running costs in the first three years of operation.

Bosses at the centre are currently trying to attract sponsors but if crucial income from the centre’s cinemas fails to materialise, a council loan of £850,000 could be at risk.

In a confidential report for last week’s council cabinet meeting, Chris Holme, head of resources, wrote: “It will take robust cost and income management to prevent the centre falling into deficit on an annual basis.

“Failure to generate levels of income identified will have a significant impact on the sustainability of the centre.”

However, Lib Dem councillor John Griffiths said: “The whole thing makes me want to cry. Because the foundation itself is the accountable body for the project, there’s no proper scrutiny of the spending. They keep coming back to us asking for more money, but I’m really worried we’re walking right into a debt trap here.”

But Nick Kilby, chief operating officer for the centre, described the councillor’s remarks as political posturing. “There are no substance to them at all. This is a well-run project, costs aren’t out of control and there is no crisis. This is a terrifically exciting project and we look forward to persuading the councillor how it will benefit the East End.”

Note the language: “it’s a well-run project, costs aren’t out of control”…and Oona King’s modest description of Rich Mix as the East End’s “very own Tate Modern”. And note the prescient warnings from a certain John Griffiths.

Four months later, Oona invited me for a tour of the centre on the day it opened (or rather, part-openened because only a third had been completed) in May 2006. One of the photographers with us noticed something odd about the wallpaper: among its patterns were a series of sketches of a black gangster pointing a gun at a white woman’s head. When I pointed this out to Oona, her face was a picture worthy of its own wallpaper: she was mortified. This wasn’t appropriate, she said; this was not the message she wanted the centre, a celebration of diversity, to be sending out.

But why was it there? Because Keith Khan, an artist who had been involved in the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, had been appointed chief executive by the Rich Mix board, of which Oona was chair. Oona told me she and Keith were personal friends. That night, Keith phoned me. He was in tears and begged us not to run the wallpaper story. I told him that Oona wanted the paper removed and it was a matter of public interest. After all, the centre had been built with some £26million of public money and that thousands of that cash had gone on buying trendy wallpaper from luxury designers Timorous Beasties.

The article we ran, which contains a photo of the wallpaper, is available to see here. But here’s how Keith defended his decision at the time:

I passed the wallpaper by the board and they were OK with it. I will not bow to McCarthyism. I do not condone the violence in its imagery, but people have to deal with London. It reflects London and not a sanitised version of it. I want to promote the independence of young designers. What I like about it is that they’ve created a very white working class appeal. There’s aggression in the design, but we turn on the television every day and see far worse images. The design is the voice of young people. I’m interested in that working class / middle class crossover and it appeals on that level.”

Was his the voice of an artist given the dream job of spending other people’s money, or the one of a stringent cost-controller? The dire state of the centre’s finances suggested very much the former. Within a few months, he and board member Michael Keith had fallen out and Khan went on long term sick leave with stress. He finally negotiated his departure in February 2007 and three months later, seemingly fully recovered, he was hired as ‘head of culture’ for the 2012 Olympic Games! Private Eye reported on it at the time, I seem to recall.

With a lovely symmetry that his artistic designs are famed for, Keith is now a board member of Arts Council England. The Arts Council, you see, is the Rich Mix’s biggest funder, having put in £6.3m as capital and hundreds of thousands more to keep it running.

In fact, soon after Keith left in early 2007, the Arts Council was so concerned about its investment that it sent in a special hit squad of investigators to assess whether to award more emergency funding or just simply pull the plug and call it a day.

Its eventual decision to carry on came as the following report was collectively agreed by the council’s cabinet in March 2007. [By this time, Michael Keith had lost his seat on the council and the town hall was being led by his close friend Denise Jones, who is also a Rich Mix board member. But look who else was in the cabinet...Lutfur Rahman (as the lead member for Culture, no less), Sirajul Islam and Helal Abbas! All three of them, along with Michael, candidates on the Labour shortlist for mayor.]

Here’s a couple of extracts from the report they all agreed that day:

Following a re-modeling of business plans by the Foundation, officers are assured that the financial position for this year has been stabilized. Business projections have been produced to show how the Centre could achieve a break-even position within three years.

Rich Mix have updated their business plans and developed a new model taking account of the first six months of operation, reduced costs and amended its development programme accordingly. It will take ongoing robust cash-flow, cost and income management to ensure sustainability.

Note the words “robust”, “break-even”, “stabilised”.

By October 2007, when Rich Mix came begging to the council for more help to shore up its position, Abbas and Lutfur Rahman had left the cabinet – and now Shiria Khatun (yes, another candidate for mayor!) was lead member for Culture.

Here are a couple of extracts from the report which that cabinet agreed:

Rigorous project management arrangements have helped mitigate risks of project and cost overruns.

All major funders are in agreement that the revised business strategy provides a firm base for Rich Mix’s development.

Well, the upshot of that “firm base” and “rigorous” cost control and revised business strategy was, as we know, near financial meltdown. Here’s a couple of extracts from the report passed by the council’s strategic development committee on Monday night when only Labour councillor Shahed Ali voted against handing the centre £500,000 of free money:

Rigorous income monitoring processes are now in place, setting weekly targets for a range of operations, including cinema, catering and events. These processes allow for greater levels of accountability and enable management to target areas of underperformance. Monitoring for the first two months of the current financial year suggests that target setting is robust and achievable.

Loss-making catering operations have been restructured significantly and elements of the food offer have been stopped. This allows the catering operation to focus on those elements that are generating a surplus. The changes to the catering operations are expected to generate a greater level of surplus in 2010/11.

All sound a bit familiar?

Yes, councillors were in a tricky position on Monday night: without the cash, Rich Mix might well have gone under and the council would have been at risk of losing much of its £3.6million investment. But it has been the total lack of proper scrutiny by Labour councillors which caused the mess in the first place.

Remember the name John Griffiths? Until 2006, he was a councillor and deputy leader of the Lib Dem group. He warned against the folly of Rich Mix from the outset. He’s also likely to be the Lib Dem candidate for Tower Hamlets mayor in October. Unlike most of the Labour lot (except John Biggs and Rozna Mortuza), he seems to have a pretty good track record on this…exactly the sort of person capable of running our borough perhaps?

Over the next few days, I’m going to post more on Rich Mix, particularly about the £500k gift, the £850k loan the council forgot about and the possibility of a legal challenge to Monday night’s decision.

I have a feeling that Rich Mix will be an election issue for October.

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At 5pm today, there were two Shoreditch-types sipping lattes in the cafe at the The Rich Mix arts centre in Bethnal Green. Another eight sat in the bar surfing their Apple Macs on the free Wi-Fi; not one of them had a drink.

Two hours later, a group of Labour’s Tower Hamlets councillors agreed to GIVE the centre £500,000 of our money to wipe out the losses it has accumulated over the past four years. Rich Mix, which cost £27m to build and millions more to run, had gone begging to the council. It said that without the cash it would have to close within two months. Senior council officers and the current Rich Mix management told tonight’s extremely controversial meeting of the strategic development committee that during its short life it had been run disastrously.

Pretty much throughout that time, its less than fully competent management board has been run by two people who are now trying to convince Labour party members they are capable of controlling billions of pounds of public budgets: Michael Keith in Tower Hamlets and Oona King for London.

I’ll try and find the time to give the full details and history of this scandal tomorrow, including the tale of an £850k loan the council had forgotten about, but in the meantime here’s some homework from The Times, which I’ve pasted below.

From The Times

July 15, 2008

A Rich Mix of politics in East London

Karen Bartlett

It seemed like such a good idea: an arts centre in the heart of vibrantly multicultural East London. But two years after its doors opened, Rich Mix in Bethnal Green still awaits its official opening, its short history tainted by infighting and financial problems. This week, Patience Wheatcroft, the former Business Editor of The Times and more recently Editor of The Sunday Telegraph, will present a report to the London Assembly which is expected to be highly critical of the way the London Development Agency (LDA) selected, funded and oversaw flagship projects championed by the former Mayor, Ken Livingstone. Those projects include Rich Mix, the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham and Caribbean Showcase, which is the subject of a police investigation into the management of its funds.

The Rich Mix Cultural Centre has cost in excess of £27 million of public money – nearly £13 million over budget, according to the LDA. Supporters of Rich Mix believe it is a unique opportunity to bring together the white working class and Bangladeshi communities in the area, but critics claim that it has amounted to little more than a potent stew of political wrangling.

Wheatcroft’s report is likely to view Rich Mix more favourably than other projects but, speaking to the London Assembly Budget Committee last month, she criticised the London Development Agency for a general culture of “endemic spending” and founding projects such as Caribbean Showcase “on a whim”. The arrival of Boris Johnson as London Mayor coincides with a broader change of direction in national arts funding. Katriona Macrae-Gibson of the London office of the Arts Council confirms that there are no plans for any further capital building projects of the Rich Mix type. Alan Davey, the new chief executive of the Arts Council, has said that an emphasis on artistic “excellence” could mean funding more successful projects while cutting money for underperformers.

According to Anwar Akhtar, a former director of Rich Mix, the centre was originally envisaged as a meeting point for “City boys, Bangladeshi grandmothers and dungaree-clad students”. But a recent visit on a Saturday afternoon revealed an empty building and a café without food. A local Bengali women’s group appeared not to have heard of the project. “What is Rich Mix?” asked one woman. “It’s that big fat building up the road that no one ever goes to,” her friend informed her.

Rich Mix will continue to rely on a combination of commercial enterprise and the public sector for both programming and funding – its annual budget is £1.8 million. Arts Council England has committed to the project for three years, and most of the workshop space in the building has now been leased to local creative industries. The BBC has built a studio on the ground floor, alongside a bar and café and a three-screen cinema. Rich Mix admits the café and bar are underused, and a new food franchise is under consideration. The cinema, though, attracts 6,000 customers a month, up on 4,000 a year ago. With Hollywood – and Bollywood – a key source of income, Michael Keith, a member of the Rich Mix board, rejects the criticism that the centre has used public money to fund the screening of blockbusters already available at commercial cinemas. “It was always going to be a cinema that mixed commercial films and art films,” Keith says. “We want people to see Sex and the City and then bump into another exhibit on the way out.”

A typical week at Rich Mix involves an Arts Council conference, a local tenants’ meeting, Jazz on Sunday, a popular mainstream movie and a children’s educational workshop. Some claim that this programme promotes worthiness at the expense of artistic integrity (Rich Mix does not have a dedicated gallery space). The Rich Mix model has led some to question the value of arts and culture centres at all. “An arts centre is ghastly,” says the design critic Stephen Bayley. “It’s the relic of a culture that has no contemporary relevance. When did anyone ever say, ‘I’ve got a free afternoon, let’s go to the arts centre’?”

Rich Mix was dreamed up in the early 1990s as an “arts market” by a group including Labour councillors Denise Jones and Michael Keith. “It’s a who’s who of the East London Labour Party,” says Ted Jeory of the East London Advertiser. Oona King, the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and now Downing Street adviser, is chairman of the centre’s board. “Rich Mix was a political idea, in the best sense,” Denise Jones says. “This is the most deprived borough in the country and we wanted to bring together – through art – the white working class from the Isle of Dogs and the Bengali boys from the Boundary Estate. Whatever you think of us, we had that vision.”

The organisation is confident it can bridge communities, but the former Liberal Democrat councillor John Griffiths has long opposed the project. “The only people who go there are white Shoreditch artist types. It does not appeal to other communities in any way.”

After years on the drawing board, the very existence of Rich Mix was still in doubt up to 18 months ago, with spiralling costs and arguments about the leadership of Keith Khan, now the Head of Culture for London 2012. According to Jeory, “Keith was not a natural cost controller, but the board was also weak.” Overstaffing, disputes between builders and architects, and specially commissioned wallpaper showing a black gangster pointing a gun at a white woman’s head all added to the expense, with some funders temporarily witholding revenue in 2007 until a new business plan could be agreed. Khan did not want to comment on Rich Mix for this article.

Rich Mix is now run by Pawlet Brookes, formerly the artistic director of the Peepul Centre in Leicester, and Katriona Macrae-Gibson of the Arts Council says that, after a difficult period, she is confident the project is on track. But Stephen Bayley questions any cultural or artistic project driven by a political concept. He says politicians are “philistines without vision” and adds that the problems at Rich Mix “smack of the dead hand of the Arts Council, which should have been abolished 60 years ago”.

John Kampfner, the chairman of Turner Modern, a £17 million gallery due for construction in Margate, says there is a new emphasis within funding bodies and central government on excellence and quality. “Art has to lead, otherwise it feels like social engineering, and that never works. Its good for society to widen access to art, but we can’t sacrifice excellence in pursuit of that.”

After an initial opening in February 2006, and more than two years in operation, Rich Mix is finally ready for a full “official” opening this autumn. With the building almost complete, tenant occupancy is at more than 90 percent and the project has created 50 front-of-house and administrative jobs for local people. It seems certain that Rich Mix will be allowed space to grow: Boris Johnson is reserving comment until after the Wheatcroft report but claims to be “committed to supporting and nurturing high-quality cultural projects that contribute to London’s status as a world-class city”. Privately Johnson’s cultural advisers are thought to be sympathetic to Rich Mix, wanting to support ethnic groups that have suffered discrimination without being boxed into the identity politics they believe was redolent of Ken Livingstone.

John Pandit of the band Asian Dub Foundation has been involved with Rich Mix since its founding and takes a more belligerent view of the centre’s critics. “There used to be absolutely nothing for people around here, and if it was up to some there’d still be nothing.”

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Emdad Rahman’s blog has long been one of my favourites in Tower Hamlets. I first came across him when he took part in an excellent Tower Hamlets council organised school trip to Auschwitz about three years ago, an initiative which was designed to educate kids of all faiths the horrors of extremism.

Among many other things, he is the executive editor at the London Bangla newspaper. His interviewing style is not of the grilling kind, but he makes his subject relax and that’s a good thing.

On his blog, he has videoed three interviews with three of the mayoral candidates: Michael Keith’s is here; John Biggs is here and here; and Shiria Khatun is here. If you’re interested in the guff they’ve got to say, do spare the time when you have a chance. It’s interesting how all three of them, and not Emdad himself, raise faith issues. Shiria, in particular, boasts that she was Ken Livingstone’s “first Muslim adviser”, which seems a pretty bold claim. Silly me, I was under the impression that she was his “transport adviser”. I’ve made this point before, but aren’t the issues that affect people’s lives the same for all communities, regardless of faith? Why is a housing issue any different for an atheist than it is for a Christian or a Muslim?

Stick to those issues that we all have in common, forget the talk of religion…and we might just move towards the currently over-spun goal of ‘One Tower Hamlets’.

Anyhow, happy viewing…

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I wrote this for today’s Sunday Express and I’ve pasted it below.

Walthamstow’s new Labour MP Stella Creasy is heavily involved in the campaign. She brought it up when we met just before the Parliamentary recess last week. I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot about her in future years. I found her extremely impressive.

THE fate of a unique art deco cinema which may have inspired the young Alfred Hitchcock will move one step closer to its conclusion this week.

A report on its financial viability will be published which could lead to the building’s restoration, but success will depend on its current owners, the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The cinema, in Walthamstow, north-east London, near Hitchcock’s Leytonstone birthplace, is the last in Britain with a working Christie theatre organ.

It played host to a string of Sixties bands, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who.

Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Frank Sinatra also performed at the EMD cinema, whose sumptuous interior, created by famed Russian stage designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, is still intact despite the building being vacant for seven years.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is the organisation that was alleged to have claimed that murdered child abuse victim Victoria Climbié was possessed by the devil. It wants to convert the site into a Baptist church but has so far failed to gain planning permission.

Its ambitions have caused outrage locally and campaigners want to buy the Grade II-listed building back to restore it to its former use as a cinema.

They have recruited the support of Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, who lives in California, as well as that of Sir Mick Jagger, locally-born comedy actors Alan Davies and Tony Robinson and the philosopher Alain de Botton.

Walthamstow’s new Labour MP Stella Creasy is also backing the campaign and the Heritage Lottery Fund is said to be “very keen” to offer support.

The cost could be prohibitive, however. The church is believed to have paid £2.8million for the site in 2003, a cost many believe to have been inflated and more than it is worth in today’s market. The financial viability report, commissioned by Waltham Forest Council, is expected to say that £10million is needed to restore the building as a cinema, meaning any purely commercial venture is unlikely to be profitable.

Consultants are believed to recommend that the only way of securing its future as a cinema would be for the church to sell it to a charitable trust, which could then secure grant and Lottery cash. The church is still pressing for planning permission for its own scheme, however.

Ms Creasy said: “It’s a nationally important building. We really need the church to enter into a discussion with us, which they have not yet done.”

No one from the church was available to comment last night.

The building opened as an entertainment venue in 1887, 12 years before Hitchcock’s birth, and became a cinema in 1907

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