PROFILE: Kamal Ahmed - In the name of equality

'I've got some silver eye shadow if you want some, Kamal.' A throng of female jokers are gathering around Kamal Ahmed, group director of comms, Equality and Human Rights Commission, as he poses for photos in the Equality and Human Rights Commission's state-of-the-art offices overlooking Tower Bridge.

Kamal Ahmed
Kamal Ahmed

He maintains his laddish charm even as he asks: 'Can we make this any more embarrassing, please?'

With his trademark sharp suit and booming voice, the whippet-thin Ahmed cuts the commission's peaceful atmosphere like a walking razorblade. Even chairman Trevor Phillips sticks his head around his office door to see what all the fuss is about.

There is an air of optimism at the commission, which formed in October, a merger of the Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission.

'A lot of people were surprised,' admits 40-year-old Ahmed, referring to his move from The Observer in December after being approached by a headhunter - he was having dinner with David Miliband when he received the call.

'It was a bloody hard decision. But I'm not the kind of person who sits there wondering what is the right decision. You get on with it. You do the next thing.'

Kamal AhmedAhmed's last work situation had allegedly been less relaxed. According to Nick Davies' 'scurrilous' book (Ahmed's words) Flat Earth News, Ahmed's period as The Observer's political editor was not going well. Having been thrust into the role with no lobby experience, he was out of his depth, said the book, so he was handed a paddle by Alastair Campbell.

The Observer's backing of the Iraq War and an alleged early viewing of the "dodgy" dossier by Ahmed helped Davies conclude that he simply was not up to the job.

Ahmed felt that questions put to him at the time were loaded and difficult to answer without appearing guilty. But today he is relaxed about discussing Davies' murky allegations, to the point of pulling out cuttings for background reading. Ahmed insists that his resignation had nothing to do with tensions at the newspaper.

'You go through these things - it's a part of the job. They were not part of the discussions when I resigned.'

Ahmed claims that rumours started when 'someone with the book's interest at heart' called national newspapers saying Ahmed was leaving because of Davies' allegations. 'It is ironic that it was a concerted PR tactic to sell the book,' he adds.

The other figure at the heart of the story was former Observer editor Roger Alton, who supports Ahmed: 'As head of news, he was an extraordinarily powerful and creative force. Superb, and loved by his news room, and by the sub-editors, who famously tend to despise editors and news editors.'

Has Ahmed spoken to Campbell since he left The Observer? 'We've not spoken,' replies Ahmed, 'but there have been some text messages sent between us over the Davies thing. They were quite jokey. We share a fairly robust view on Nick.'

Ahmed also insists the move to PR was not for the money, which is in six figures: 'It was relatively close to that at The Observer,' he shrugs. 'Well,' he admits with a smirk, 'It is quite a lot more now.'

The Observer's comment editor Ruaridh Nicoll has known Ahmed since his days on Scotland on Sunday. 'I was surprised at the time,' he says of Ahmed's switch to PR. 'I thought he was going to be the UK's first black editor.

'He became increasingly strategic. He was very good at managing the place at where the newspaper should be in two years.'

The new role is as far removed from the brutal world of national journalism as one could get, especially without any practical experience. 'It is all about organising and managing people,' responds Ahmed.

One senior Whitehall comms chief suggests it might not be all plain sailing for Ahmed: 'He walks interviews with intellect and charm, and is an engaging presence. But he has rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. He likes you if you're on the right side, but his new job deals with lots of different people. It depends on how good he is at dealing with stakeholders.'

Ahmed is a new entrant in the PRWeek Power Book - one of just eight non-white faces. So does he think the commission should be concerned about the ethnic homogeneity of the PR industry?

'I think that it is not just a numbers game, it is more that if an industry doesn't have a diverse set of people, then it is missing a trick. In 1996, I thought it was pretty white at the top of the media, but that it wouldn't look like that in ten years. But it did.'

Despite being the new kid on the PR block, Ahmed is certainly adept at staying on-message. As our interview is spread over two meetings, he inadvertently gives an identical spiel both times: 'The two things that matter to us are getting on with the planet and each other.'

But the central point he is trying to achieve is a noble one - to change the terms of the equality debate. As he puts it: 'The debate has been reflected as one that is "not for me". We want this to be for everyone.'

'I have been in journalism for 15 years and enjoyed every minute of it,' concludes Ahmed. 'But this job was too good to miss. The whole thing is about fairness and that is a great British value.'

Ahmed walks us to the exit, where we stand chatting as the electric doors try to close around us. It is then that a less visionary and more off-message comment emerges: 'I'll tell you what, though - it is fucking hard work.'

CV
2007: Group director of comms, Equality and Human Rights Commission
2000: Political editor, then executive editor, news, The Observer
1996: Media reporter, then media editor, The Guardian
1995: General and royal correspondent, The Guardian
1992: Correspondent, then news editor, Scotland on Sunday

TURNING POINTS

What was your biggest career break?
Getting on to the Scotland on Sunday. I was working on a local paper, and the Windsor Castle fire happened. They were desperate for someone to cover the story and they found me. I was hungry enough to drive all the way down from Glasgow to cover the story. I consider myself a journalist. Many people like to deride journalism when they leave it by saying things like "oh, it's not what it was", but I'm the opposite. I was bloody lucky to have my career and it was a great opportunity.

What advice would you give someone climbing the PR career ladder?
A couple of things. Know what journalists want. And be clear of the five key messages of your organisation. Keep bringing them out.

Who was your most notable mentor?
Roger Alton. He was editor of G2 when I started at The Guardian. He commissioned my first G2 front page. But also, as every journalist would say, my role models are people like Bob Woodward.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
Be straight. If a journalist rings you up, be honest with them. I look for people who are positive and are willing to take risks. You're driven by values at The Guardian and The Observer. The value of optimism and that people should get on together.

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