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BBC editor says bosses put Afghan staff's lives at risk when Taliban swept to power 

A BBC editor has accused the company of “criminal negligence” and putting the lives of staff at risk due to insufficient emergency planning in Afghanistan, a court has heard.

Saleem Patka, former acting head of the BBC’s Afghan service, said the BBC had left “the majority of our staff exposed to Taliban fickleness and cruelty”.

In a previous case, he claimed minority staff were paid less than their white colleagues

Mr Patka was concerned about a delay in briefing staff on a contingency plan to leave Afghanistan if the situation became too dangerous.

He raised his concerns with various levels of the BBC, including managing director Tim Davie and Fran Unsworth, then director of news and current affairs.

Mr Patka then sued the company in an employment tribunal, claiming he had been treated unfairly after raising his concerns.

However, the panel dismissed Mr. Patka’s case.

Saleem Patka, former acting head of the BBC’s Afghanistan service, claimed the BBC failed to prepare an adequate exit plan for its staff in Afghanistan in time.

The London court heard that in early 2021 it became clear the US would withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the BBC acknowledged it may have to abandon its office in Kabul.

A staff contingency plan was reviewed and largely rewritten by Mr. Patka with the provision that staff be informed of the plan immediately.

In a meeting to discuss the plan, many disagreed with the provision due to concerns about a backlash, the panel heard.

Mr. Tarik Kafala, who was the applicant’s direct manager and World Service Language Manager, reportedly decided to delay sharing the plan.

The court heard that Mr Patka “strongly disagreed” and went above his own supervisor to try to overturn the decision.

He wrote to Ms Sarah Ward-Lilley, who was Mr Kafala’s senior news editor, in April 2021.

In the email, Mr Patka wrote: “I understand that Tarik [Mr Kafala] and others began to worry about the reaction of personnel in Afghanistan.

“But at the end of the day, I think our responsibility is to do what’s best, rather than worry about any short-term embarrassment.”

“I think the plan outlined on Monday should be implemented immediately, otherwise there is a serious risk that we will not be prepared if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates rapidly.”

Mr Patka then emailed Fran Unsworth, director of news and current affairs, in May 2021.

He said: “We currently have no workable contingency plan if the security situation deteriorates and it becomes too dangerous for our journalists to continue working in Afghanistan.”

“In order to put a proper plan in place, we first need to talk to our staff about what this means for them, but Tarik refuses to allow us to do that.”

Mr Kafala disagreed, saying it was “premature”, the court heard.

He said: “I had spoken twice to Fran, Mary and the high-risk team about when we should communicate the contingency plan to staff, before and after the plan was approved.

“We all agreed that it was premature to communicate the plan immediately after its approval at the end of March 2021.”

In July 2021, Mr Patak emailed Mr Davie, concerned about the 60 personnel in Afghanistan he was responsible for.

He also claimed that staff had been exposed to the “fickleness and cruelty of the Taliban” before the terror group took power in Afghanistan last year.

His email said he thought the contingency plan was “a good step forward”, but it left “the majority of our staff exposed to Taliban fickleness and cruelty”.

Mr Patka’s subsequent complaint to court even accused Mr Davie, Ms Unsworth and Mr Kafala of “criminal negligence” over staff safety, language the court described as “extreme”.

Mr Patka also claimed that in May 2021 funding agreements were made by the BBC with the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office which conflicted with the editorial independence of the BBC and alleged this had been covered up by one or more senior executives.

He sued the company in labor court, claiming he suffered damages because he made a total of five “protected disclosures”.

The court heard Mr Patka believed there had been multiple incidents against him at work where he was deliberately excluded from meetings and correspondence because of his complaints about the Afghanistan plan.

Mr Patka, who has previously filed a race discrimination complaint against the BBC over lower pay for ethnic minority workers, also alleged he was victimized for filing that earlier complaint.

However, the court dismissed all his claims and said Mr Patka was ‘hostile’, had an ‘agenda’ against his management and he did not agree that the BBC had breached any legal duty.

Labor judge Graeme Hodgson said: “The reality is that [Mr Patka] had its own agenda. He was unwilling to accept his own manager’s decision. He deliberately sought to overturn the senior executives’ decision by moving to a higher level of management.

‘We constated that [Mr Patka] had lost Mr. Kafala’s respect and became hostile to his leadership.

“With regard to health and safety, we accept [Mr Patka] had in mind protection against violence and/or specific targets.

“We are not convinced, on the balance of possibilities, that [Mr Patka] believed that the BBC had a legal obligation to protect staff from these dangers in all circumstances.

The judge described Mr Patka’s testimony on his criminal negligence claim as ‘unsatisfactory’, adding: ‘There is no attempt to explain what he believed to be meant by criminal negligence.’

Regarding the accusation of violation of editorial independence, the court also said that there was no basis for this allegation.

Judge Hodgson said: “In short, [Mr Patka] had no reason to assume that there was an improper agreement, or that the agreement was any form of contract, or that the agreement was concealed.

“He had no reason to believe that editorial independence was compromised. It follows that any alleged belief was not reasonable.

Mr Patka had previously sued the BBC for racial discrimination, saying that on three occasions he had been promoted his salary was at a ‘lower level than was or would have been offered to white managers’.

The BBC fought his claim of racial discrimination and said Mr Patka’s figures did not come from “truly comparable groups”.

Mr Patka worked as a night editor for the Today program on BBC Radio 4 before moving to BBC World.

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