A Brush with the BBC's Other Side
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A Brush with the BBC’s Other Side
by Prof. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed
The BBC enjoys enviable pre-eminence amongst global radio and television networks. Much of it is must surely rest on sound grounds, but my personal experience of dealing with them brings out those hidden features which are indicative of an organization in which deception, corruption and downright third-rate methods of exploiting knowledge and expertise of others are rampant apparently because of outsourcing to private companies such Voltage TV Productions, London.
Let me present my ordeal which can always be verified with the email exchanges I had with some of the functionaries working on a project called ‘Seven Days in Summer – Countdown to Partition’. On 26 April 2017, a young Pakistani researcher Anam Zakariya wrote to me that some people at BBC were looking for advice and help and if I could consider helping them. I agreed forthwith and the same day Ms Emily Harris wrote to me and then started an exchange of emails (all transcripts are in my possession) and conversations on telephone and Skye with the crew working on the project led by Mr Paul Berczeller. On one occasion I talked for three and a half hours – 10 am to 1.30 pm to one of the crew because there was no end to the questions she posed to me. On one occasion, I talked to Mr Berczeller for almost an hour.
Upon their request I had copies of interviews recorded on cassette tapes I had done in 2004-2005 sent from Lahore where Dr Ali Raza of LUMS was working on a partition project. Dr Raza was in Berlin in connection with his research and he had to go out of the way to have his assistants look around from among hundreds of tapes, which were all in a big box, for just those tapes which had been requested. Without my request and insistence Dr Raza would not have done - they would not even know about them. I urged the crew to read my book very carefully and select the persons whose interviews they were interested in. I too recommended some names.
I also persuaded Dr Upendra K. Pandit who lives in Amsterdam to talk to the production crew about his experiences in Lahore. This they did, but in the final selection they chose two other oral stories from my work,
Let me say that my experience of working with the crew was most pleasant. The young ladies who called me were genuine learners. I had to explain to them why the film must focus on the Punjab because the bulk of deaths and forced migration resulting in ethnic cleansing took place in the Punjab. The film which was shown is based on that premise as 80 per cent of it roughly is about events in the Punjab.
All along, on several occasions I took up the issue if I was likely to be invited to London to personally take part in the programme. I was told that a decision whether to include commentators or not had yet to be taken.
As the discussions proceeded I emphasized that I should be invited to London to take part in the programme but was told consistently that a decision about commentators had not been taken yet but that they have noted down my demand and will convey it to the programme producer.
Nobody told me that the decision was about me only because in the film several people are invited to comment – many doing it on Lahore and Punjab without a day of research on those areas! Obviously, they were responding to the script which had been prepared in consultation with me primarily because otherwise I would not be consulted again and again. I even helped with names – how to pronounce them properly and the general background of the persons being presented from my work.
On one occasion, I was told that Ms Tansi Inayat had assured her colleague that money can be found to bring me over to London. I now understand that it was simply meant to continue exploiting my expertise with the false assurance that I would take part in the programme.
In the later stages, Ms Tansi Inayat about whom I had been told was the main assistant to Mr Berczeller, finally called and with her silver tongue lavished praise on my contribution to the skies, but regretted that they had been unable to convince the BBC bosses to invite me to take part in the programme, but that the team of Mr Berczeller felt that the least they could do was to pay me a token £500 as honorarium.
She hoped I will understand. I told her frankly that the amount of work I had done for them cannot be reduced to such a sum and I had not helped them for the money but for the truth being brought forward to the people. I insisted that in the titles I should specifically be thanked and the title of my book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, displayed. She promised to make a very strong case on my behalf to the management. Also, even at that stage she did not tell me that others would be in the programme but not me.
Finally, on the day the film was to be shown a letter from Mr Paul Berczeller arrived which demonstrates amply and unequivocally his agony and sense of remorse of his failure to convince his boss Mr Jon Alwen to agree to let me take part in the film. I produce his letter and then my comments on the key sentences.
Dear Professor Ahmed
First, my apologies for not getting back to you sooner after your email last week.
I went away for a few days with my family to rest a bit after the film was done.
Your help with the film was absolutely invaluable… and i insisted on your receiving a credit, thanking you for your invaluable assistance with providing us with stories.
But you have not only helped me — everyone I spoke with during research for the film talks acknowledges that a great deal of the scholarship in the area is based on the work you have done over many years.
It was my strong personal wish to have you appear in the film as well — but for various reasons beyond my control, that wasn’t possible.
I will send out a link so you can see the film after it goes out tonight.
Thank you once again.
Paul Berczeller Producer/Director
One Week In Summer
Voltage TV Productions | 68 Wells Street, London, W1T 3QA
Sentence 1: Your help with the film was absolutely invaluable… and i insisted on your receiving a credit, thanking you for your invaluable assistance with providing us with stories.
Any literate person would read 'invaluable' to mean - indispensable, crucial, critical, key, vital, irreplaceable, extremely useful, extremely helpful, all-important, vitally important, of the utmost importance. These are the synonyms given for invaluable in online thesaurus of Oxford Dictionary.
Also, Mr Berczeller insisted that I receive a credit, thanking me for my invaluable assistance with providing us with stories. I provided many, including having copies of interviews recorded on tapes in 2004 sent to them by Dr Ali Raza at LUMS who is working on a project on the partition. Despite his insistence I figure merely among a list of others whose oral histories they used. A proper acknowledgement of my contribution is conspicuous by its absence.
Sentence 2: But you have not only helped me — everyone I spoke with during research for the film talks acknowledges that a great deal of the scholarship in the area is based on the work you have done over many years.
Now, Mr Berczeller is making a very honest and decent statement which any man of conscience should read for what it says: everyone who he spoke to during research acknowledged 'that a great deal of the scholarship in the area is based on the work you have done over many years.' In other words, it is not merely the oral histories but the whole input in discussions and advice I gave them which needs to be acknowledged. BUT HE WAS OVERRULED. Why?
I had written to my friends all over the world to watch the movie because the impression given me was that there would be no commentators and that my outstanding contribution will be amply acknowledged.
I, family and friends were assembled at my place to see the film: lo and behold several people were in the film to comment the events most of which were on events in the Punjab - a point I had emphasized strongly and the team had accepted it. My research on the Punjab is pioneering and original and took me 12 years to complete. At the end of film the titles moved with such speed that most of us did not notice that my name had merely been mentioned along with other sources for providing oral histories.
I felt humiliated and shattered because I had been duped by Voltage TV Productions and it was the most embarrassing moment in my life. Nothing comparable had ever happened to me and I had helped these people in all possible manners. I wrote to Mr Berczeller protesting this great wrong done to me.
He did not respond, but his boss Mr Jon Alwen wrote to me that the decision not to invite was taken by him. He told me that because of budgetary constraints they could not find money to invite me and insisted that since I was paid £500 for my stories it should suffice.
Further, that I have been named in the titles. This is very misleading. My contribution was far greater than the oral histories. The film also mentions telegrams sent by Governor Sir Evan Jenkins to Viceroy Mountbatten on during 11-14 August and these are also from my book. Apart from these direct materials taken from my book my contribution has been fundamental in many other ways, He has demeaned my contribution.
I wrote back that his argument was miserably flawed: £500 would amply provide for me to fly out from Stockholm to London and back with one or two nights stay in a hotel. The real reason he overruled my participation was that he wanted to favour his selection of commentators but nurtured some morbid hostility towards me which I have not been able fathom why.
Why was he so adamant, so grossly unfair just to me?
In the light of the case I have presented above I hope a tribunal is set up which can evaluate my contribution to the project. Others who were called to comment have no original work on Lahore and Punjab. The film focuses on the Punjab. I was the workhorse upon which Mr Alwen made his selection of commentators, ride. That is unacceptable.
I am professor emeritus at Stockholm University and have extensive research to my credit. The Punjab book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, (2012, 2014) has been awarded two prizes for The Best Non-Fiction Book of 2013. In 2016 it was awarded as the Best Book on Punjab at the Vaisakhi Mela in Lahore.
I want to return the five hundred pounds because I did not give my time and share my expertise and provide primary source material to them for money, but to help the truth about the partition be told.
Had no commentator been invited to take part in the film I could understand that it was a consistent and honest policy, but I now realize I was deceived in the shallowest and meanest manners.
I demand an apology from BBC and that the film ‘Seven Days in Summer – Countdown to Partition’ should be rerun with my contribution properly acknowledged. If that is not done I shall seek legal redress and probe other ways of getting justice.
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