Newsmaker: Takki Sulaiman and Tower Hamlets' Panorama problems

A BBC Panorama documentary on Tower Hamlets' elected mayor Lutfur Rahman has presented the borough's head of communications Takki Sulaiman with his latest challenge.

Takki Sulaiman: joined Tower Hamlets council in 2010 from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service
Takki Sulaiman: joined Tower Hamlets council in 2010 from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service

Monday’s programme raised concerns about bias in the mayor’s funding decisions, as well as the council’s newspaper.

As this article went live, communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles appointed a team of inspectors to investigate the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets for governance failure, poor management and fraud, following through on his promise to Panorama that he would look into the matter.

Sulaiman is no stranger to London’s local politics, having held the post since 2010 and been a Labour councillor in Haringey before his career in communications took him into jobs such as head of communications for the non-departmental public body the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS).

He declined to speak to PRWeek earlier this week, explaining that he did not believe it was appropriate with the Panorama controversy ongoing.

Rahman and Tower Hamlets Council have mounted a robust response to the programme, for which Sulaiman has enlisted the help of PR and public affairs agency Champollion.

An agency spokesperson stresses it is working for the council, of which the mayor is the head, and is not involved in political campaigning. "Takki has a duty to protect the reputation of the council and we’ve been supporting the council to ensure that whatever happened wouldn’t harm its reputation," the spokesperson says.

Champollion’s work has involved interview preparation for the mayor, along with help for press officers in preparing for calls from journalists.

The agency has been taken on for an initial three months. This means it will be in place during elections in May in which Rahman is seeking another term as mayor.

The proximity of the elections means Panorama's allegation that Rahman increased funding to Bangladeshi and Somali groups, despite council officers' recommendations, to shore up his vote, which he denies, is particularly sensitive.

Rahman has accused the programme of "racist and Islamophobic undertones" and complained that the BBC is intervening in the elections.

The council’s communications team has also issued a lengthy statement addressing the programme’s allegations. It rebutted Panorama’s claim on grants and defended the amount of coverage given to the mayor by its own newspaper, East End Life.

It said: "Panorama failed to point out that the paper promotes the activities and policies of the council. Quotes about these will inevitably come from the incumbent administration and this is specifically permitted under Government guidance."

The weekly newspaper has been a bone of contention with commercial local paper the East London Advertiser since Sulaiman started in the role.

Incidentally, the Government’s recent introduction of rules in response to the local news industry’s concerns means that East End Life should no longer be published weekly.

A difficult relationship with the media appears to be a theme with Sulaiman.

Ted Jeory, a Sunday Express journalist who also has a blog on east London politics, Trial by Jeory, argues Sulaiman’s approach to working with the press is about placing "barriers in the road" rather than developing relationships.

"The council doesn’t have the best of reputations for transparency and his overly defensive, bordering on aggressive attitude doesn’t help overcome that," says Jeory.

"He’s a former politician, of course, and I get the impression the argumentative nature required in that field has spilled over."

Jeory’s sentiments are echoed off-the-record by a journalist at the East London Advertiser, but Sulaiman does have his defenders too.

Another London council communications head, also speaking off the record, says the political issues in the borough make Sulaiman’s job "one of the toughest communications briefs in local government".

The communications head says Suliaman has lasted longer than his predecessors, claiming the council went through years of people not lasting more than 18 months in the role until the appointment of Charles Skinner in 2007.

"It’s always struck me that Takki must have the most extraordinary degree of personal resilience," the communications head adds.

However, Skinner, who was in the role until late 2009, says Tower Hamlets’ issues are "often exaggerated" and the challenges he faced working in government departments were greater.

He adds: "There are two schools of thought on how to deal with the press. One is to go into a bunker mentality and follow a lock-down strategy, and the other is to try to develop a partnership with journalists, which is what I favour.

"With something like this Panorama documentary, I would have said, ‘This is obviously a big programme, let’s have a chat’. You might take a different line later but that’s always the best way to start off."

Addressing Skinner's point, a source close to Sulaiman claims that Sulaiman initiated contact with Panorama and Channel 4's rival Dispatches programme last November, when he heard rumours they had been asking questions in the borough, and asked them if there was anything he could help with, but it was not until January he received any questions from Panorama.

The source adds that Sulaiman's communications team has faciliated numerous interviews with local press and media and at one point was considering 14 proposals from television programme makers, leading to the council's involvement with 'Undercover Boss' and 'How To Get A Council House'.

However, the news yesterday that the mayor’s spokesman (who the source points out is not Sulaiman) has said the mayor will release an unedited video of his interview with Panorama shot by his own cameraman suggests that someone is happy to take a more confrontational approach.

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