Sunday, 31 March 2013

Happy Easter

The Conversation is taking a break 
and returns Sunday 14 April

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Mira Bar-Hillel

What an encouraging change to see someone winning an award for telling it how it is and earnestly trying to do something about it: Mira Bar-Hillel, the Evening Standard’s long-serving property and planning correspondent, feared campaigner against the property world’s most rogue elements and general "tour de force", was this week honoured with a very well-deserved life-time achievement award at the LSL Property Press Awards.

I caught up with her for lunch just a couple of days later. The date had been in the diary for weeks. I’d read Mira avidly for years and heard reams about her from Standard colleague court reporter Paul Cheston, but I’d never met her. I was very much looking forward to it. And when the day came, of course the icing on the cake was learning about her most recent cause for celebration.

I took the opportunity to ask her about the campaigns she is so famous for – some of which have changed the law. Which were the highlights for her?

“My first major campaign was in the mid 1990s when, horrified that flat owners were getting such a raw deal from a very greedy element in the landlord community.  The game of these so-called "ground rent landlords" was to invent and/or inflate major works on blocks which the leaseholders struggled  - or were unable - to pay, quite happy to turn their back on the catastrophic effects their tenants would suffer. This was serious stuff. Stories of despair and destitution were rife – even suicide. My editor was right behind my campaign to change the law and so the concept of giving proper protection to tenants received the full force of The Standard’s formidable campaigning ability.  In June 1996 we succeeded in changing the law and since then it has been strengthened further, so millions of flat owners can now resist bullying landlords and fight for their rights.

Another highlight is my campaign in 2001 for better protection for flat buyers when a new scandal gripped the London property scene: residents forced by developers to pay up and move into “luxury” flats which in reality were incomplete, not "finalled", by the warranty organisation just to make their half-year figures look better. Within months of The Standard’s revelations, the Council of Mortgage Lenders changed its guidance for solicitors, banning them from completing until buildings have passed final inspection.”

Of course Mira is perhaps best known for her perseverance in working to change the regulation of estate agents to protect the public from the rogue element. Thanks to her tireless campaigning, in fact her downright refusal to give up on the matter even though it took years, selling agents are now compelled by law to belong to an Ombudsman scheme.

“I could never understand why, for decades, governments of all shades refused to protect the public from rogue estate agents; I am totally at a loss to comprehend why, having finally seen the light, they still stubbornly refuse to subject rogue letting agents to any accountability.”

Other highlights for the rest of us include her role saving Paternoster Square and St Paul’s from the worst of modern architecture, with a little help from Prince Charles; and, some 20 years later, do the same for the Chelsea Barracks site in Belgravia; also promoting the idea for a giant Ferris wheel next to County Hall as a millennium project. It was the stunning images of what was in the architects' minds' eye, published first in the Standard, that sparked the public’s imagination and support for what is now one of our most-loved London landmarks.

So what does she think of her lifetime achievement award?

“Well, I’m not ready to hang up my spurs yet!”

Glad to hear it Mira! Looking forward to your next campaign :)


We felt for our chums at the Standard this week as they apologised profusely about the Budget leak. Indeed my lunch with Mira was interrupted by several calls from her colleagues as the whole editorial team was clearly concerned about the slip. Editor Sarah Sands said she was "devastated", clearly worried that the special arrangement the paper has enjoyed with successive Governments will now be reviewed.  (They receive Budget detail in advance so stories can be prepared ahead for publication after the Chancellor's speech.)  

But imagine the poor tweeter! Apparently a very young and inexperienced journalist, in a first job of their career.  Few would blame such a novice for the error. If ever there were a lesson in why it's a mistake to delegate tweeting to the most junior person in the office by default, just because the assumption is that this generation "gets" social media better than the rest of us, this is it.  You wouldn't ask the most junior person in the office to stand up in front of an audience of thousands and  present important information on the company/firm, would you?  So why does anyone think it might be appropriate on social media platforms?  

As Twitter celebrated its 7th birthday this week, complete with a patent application as if to prove its coming of age, we had fun at Kysen looking back down the years and contemplating how astonishingly fast this innocent-looking little bluebird has managed to chirrup its way into our lives and make its nest in the mainstream of modern day communication. 

We love how Twitter has changed our lives for the better, bringing us breaking news far quicker, almost as it happens.  We also like the new proximity with clients, journalists, and professional contacts throughout the working day, this new medium enabling us to chat as if we were just talking to them over the tops of our PCs, as we do each other in the office. 

We've also had fun making new, and reconnecting with old, clients and friends. For me, the highlights have been getting back in touch with old colleagues from legacy firm Brecher & Co, who have since become much-loved clients.  And on a personal note being "found" on Twitter by a childhood best friend from the Brownies (don't attempt to visualise this, please!) who I hadn't seen since I was 14! We are now back in regular touch. If you think Twitter is only about the superficial and the inane, I'd strongly urge you to think again.  This medium most definitely can make valuable, meaningful new connections IRL*.

But what will the next seven years bring? We couldn't have imagined Twitter before it arrived. I wonder what the future has in store...

* In Real Life

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Monique Fauchon

I thought I’d heard every possible angle on the Pryce/Huhne story then French avocat Monique Fauchon gave me something fresh. This sorry saga has had so many twists you could almost use it for law students: one legal case to explore multiple legal principles.

First the issue of dishonesty in public office and whether there should be a different standard expected of those in high office. Discuss. Then an acrimonious marital breakdown following Huhne’s affair with his PR aide and accusations of "marital coercion", tried by the highly educated career woman Vicky Pryce but a defence that most of us had never heard of. And given it only applies in the context of a straight marriage, is it still an appropriate legal point for the modern age in any event? Again, discuss.

And of course the criminal justice process came under scrutiny big-time, thanks to a truly bizarre turn of events in this case as the jury completely failed... both to reach a verdict and to display an inkling of sense in the proceedings. Finally this week we reached the point of custodial sentences for both Huhne and Pryce. So the latest commentary has focussed on whether or not the sentences are fair given the rarity of prosecutions, let alone custodial sentences, for swapping points. Again, are we right to expect different standards of people in high public office? You have 2,000 words to put forward your view.

Monique runs a boutique law firm with partner Michel Levy.  Fauchon Levy has one office in Paris also one in London, and specialises in helping corporate and private clients bridge the channel dividing English and French legal systems. It’s not just the black letter law that separates these two jurisdictions but sometimes their entire cultures, their governmental systems and customs, which if misunderstood can throw people’s cross-channel personal or business affairs into dire straits.

“The interesting thing for me about the Vicky Pryce case is the striking differences with the way the “saga” would have been treated in France" Monique tells me. Firstly, the affair of the husband would not have been revealed by the press because of our laws on privacy. Secondly, it is not a crime to swap points between spouses. Thirdly, this “crime” could not have been prosecuted in France since a shorter limitation would have been applied. Fourthly, the sentence would not have been so draconian. It would certainly have been suspended as Miss Pryce has no criminal record."

Astonishing how different jurisdictions can be such a short distance away from English shores.

Monique has impressed me before with tales of her smart tactical usage of French law to effect a neat outcome for clients in the UK. She has been known to use (the much stricter) French privacy laws to suppress publication of a UK national tabloid or broadsheet story on the basis that international circulation will undoubtedly reach French audiences, thus contravening her client’s privacy rights in France, thus halting publication of the article altogether. I’d love to tell you about the high profile, potential headline news stories she’s worked on in this way. But I might end up in the Bastille if I did!

Lots of interesting aspects to the appointment of the new Pope this week. We watched history in the making as for the first time ever the previous Pontiff was still around to watch the arrival of his successor. Whether this change to the principles of papal succession will usher in the sea-change the scandal-rocked Catholic Church so badly needs remains to be seen. But one change was apparent for all to see and I loved the way the Guardian told the story: the photos that spoke a thousand words about how our modern life has changed since Pope Benedict’s inauguration eight years ago. In 2005 the new pope was greeted by flickering candles.  This week the new papal era was marked by a wall of iPads and iPhones.

Let’s hope the Catholic Church takes this cue about the changing times and starts to catch up with modern society's ideas of openness, transparency and accountability. 

Looking forward to our Kysen outing to see “Read All About It”, a dance extravaganza by students of King’s College past and present at Greenwood theatre. One act is choreographed by our very own Mariya Derelieva as part of her alumni activity. The latest edition to the Kysen team, Mariya is a very bright young woman who comes from Bulgaria, originally engineering and funding her own move to study history at King’s and achieving a first class degree despite  English being her second language. The title of the show is very appropriate given our focus on all things news-related. Mariya is not giving much away about tonight’s performance other than to say there will be 20 different dances all related to the theme of news. Should I be worried a pastiche of life at Kysen might have crept in to the proceedings? The story of Kysen in dance form. Now there’s an idea…

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Francesca Kaye

LSLA President Francesca Kaye is concerned about “talent leakage” from the legal profession and is planning to do something about it.  Surely there must be something wrong with a profession that loses so many practitioners at the height of their careers – across all areas of legal practice and affecting both genders.  We spoke in the run-up to International Women’s Day this week so I was keen to quiz Francesca about the plight of women in the profession, particularly following Law Society President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff’s headline-grabbing pronouncements that the profession needs to get better at flexible working and “stop promoting mediocre men” at the expense of talented women.  The statistics are well known, but no less shocking in their familiarity: some 40% of female lawyers will have left the profession by the time they reach nine years qualified.  An expensive loss of the firms who employ and invest in them – and surely a personal tragedy for the individual women themselves?

“We certainly need to look at our current model and think about what we need to change to stop such widespread disenfranchisement”, she tells me.  “But I have to say, I don’t see this issue as limited to gender.  We have just as much a challenge in keeping talented men engaged – after all they are as key to their families as women, so the issue of juggling work and family can be just as intense in their lives.  And it’s not just about balancing work and family – today’s practitioner wants to have time for a fulfilling personal life outside of work, whatever that entails.

“I also think it’s interesting to look at the experience of the “gender neutral working environments” that the pharmaceutical sector has toyed with.  The big surprise is that these initiatives still haven’t stopped women choosing to leave the workplace to concentrate full time on their families.  I think we have to question some of our assumptions here.  Perhaps the problem is that we’re insisting on seeing it as a problem at all.  Perhaps these women make a positive choice.  Dare I say it, could it be associated with that age-old prejudice, seeing the role of full-time parent and home-maker as intrinsically less valuable than that of money-maker and family breadwinner? 

“I would advocate a reassessment of equality.  What do we mean by that term? Equality of choice is certainly important.  But does equality of numbers actually mean very much at all?  I’d argue a focus on the numbers is arbitrary at best – and worse, the ‘tokenism’ this inevitably leads to is in danger of undermining talented women’s credibility, making their experience in the workplace all the harder. Am I in favour of female quotas on senior management teams?  Can you guess? No, I am not!”

Francesca believes the answer to some of the more intractable aspects of retaining talent will not be found in simplistic, one-dimensional solutions.  I’m particularly keen to do what I can to see how things can be changed in the world of litigation practice.  It’s going to require some deep thinking, some forensic analysis of what’s really going on and some creative thought about how to change things for the better – and in a way that works not just in “laboratory conditions”, but in the cut and thrust of the real world. For example it’s not easy to think of flexible working models that work in the very special context of big cases, where work is so demanding – indeed all-consuming – for months, even years at a time.  We need to put our collective heads together to find a way.”

She is planning a high level round table discussion later this year on the subject of how to improve talent retention in the field of litigation.  If you have ideas, or would like to assist, please do let her know.
Hot news this week was Supreme Court Judge Lord Neuberger beating Justin Bieber to the top trending spot on Twitter.  Legal Cheek delighted us with the headline "UK's top Judge ousts Justin Bieber As Twitter's Hottest Topic After Voicing Legal Aid Concerns". This revelation follows on neatly from my theme a fortnight ago that one of the reasons The Guardian has decided to publish more of its legal news through its main news pages, rather than via a stand-alone legal section, may simply be because legal issues are increasingly mainstream rather than specialist interest.
Of course the judiciary is a world apart from the realm of pop celebrity with its outrageous behaviour and laissez-faire anything-goes attitude.  Indeed judging from the outrage of fans kept waiting for his performance at the O2 in London this week, the likes of Bieber could learn a lesson or two from the professional values of the legal establishment.  The Beliebers, (as his fans are known), were kept up way past their bedtime as a result of the two-hour concert delay, poor things.  This young man has a lot to learn.  ..  Sorry, what was that?  ...No, I hadn't heard...  Say again?  A judge formally reprimanded by the Office for Judicial Complaints for "unacceptable delays" in handing down a judgment?  What, in the same week as the Bieber delay debacle?  Maybe the two worlds are not so far apart after all...
I have been looking forward to the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern, as regular readers of this blog will know.  And this week's visit didn't disappoint.  Exciting to see these famous high-impact images "in the flesh" for the first time.  Particularly interesting to see them in the week of International Women's Day, as the depiction of women in popular culture is one of Lichtenstein's big themes.  Similarly to the grandaddy of pop art Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein was intrigued by the art and ideology of consumerism.  Reading up about him for the exhibition, I learn that his work "explored the potent collision of commercial and fine art", and that he was fascinated by "the depiction of objects manipulated by disembodied female hands in consumer advertising, suggesting the portrayal of women as an extension of the household appliance".  Of all the roles the modern day woman is expected to play, this is probably the one I am least familiar with - as anyone in my family will tell you!  

Do make time to enjoy the exhibition, which runs till 27 May.  You'll enjoy.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dr Narinder Kapur

NHS whistleblower Doctor Narinder Kapur feels well and truly vindicated. Regular readers of this blog will remember that The Good Doctor was featured in The Conversation last October as he was about to stage a Gandhi-inspired hunger strike outside the Department of Health to protest against the impact of NHS cuts on patient safety and care, and also the plight of whistleblowers, lambasted not listened to when raising legitimate concerns. Narinder himself was sacked unfairly from his role as Head of Neuropsychology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital for raising the alarm. In the months since his campaign – my, hasn’t falling standards of NHS care become the main headline news topic of the day!

We caught up this week as Narinder was preparing for a House of Commons conference he is organising next Thursday (7 March) together with Health Select Committee member  Virendra Sharma MP. Entitled Gandhian Values and the Modern NHS: Celebrating Success and Challenging Distress, the purpose of the event is to improve patient care and – I love this idea particularly – help put compassion back into the NHS.

“The theme of the conference is to raise awareness of Gandhian values as they pertain to topical issues in the NHS, such as the concerns related to the Mid-Staffs Scandal, all those horror stories you read in the papers about elderly patients left waiting for hours in hospital corridors without food and water, or discharged in the middle of the night without transport, left to walk home in the cold and the dark. Also the cases where doctors and other NHS staff from both white and ethnic communities have suffered distress as a result of unfair treatment by hospital management, sometimes it seems as a result of raising concerns.”

The opening talks of next Thursday’s conference are an address by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, “Mahatma Gandhi: What he taught us about Truth, Compassion and Justice” and then a presentation by Narinder “The light still shines: How Gandhi can illuminate the NHS”. Later in the day Sir Peter Bottomley MP will be talking about “What the MP sees”, Julie Bailey from CureTheNHS will discuss the “Mid-Staffordshire Patients Perspective” and Lead Counsel on the Mid-Staffs Inquiry Tom Kark QC will also be giving his perspective. 

I ask Narinder, surely he must feel his work is done, now that the issues he has been campaigning about for so long are being properly aired and debated. But this man will not rest until he sees a wholesale culture change in the NHS.

“Yes, I am pleased that we are starting to make progress. And yes to that extend I feel vindicated. But my overriding feeling is that in many ways my work has just begun.”

Follow Narinder on Twitter to stay close to the debates at his House of Commons Conference next week and keep up-to-date with his campaign to bring compassion back into the NHS.

Sophie astonished us all this week with an amazing placement on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. It's not that rare for us to have legal clients on the Today programme of course, although I'd be lying if I said it was an everyday occurrence - this is the creme de la creme of PR opportunities after all. But what impressed us so much was the fact she had placed them on such a soft topic. Usually our showings on the Today programme are hooked on to major major legal news stories such as significant Supreme Court cases, new legislation, etc. On this occasion however, the topic was work/life balance - and you can't get much "touchy-feely" than that.

The spokesperson was famed legal recruiter Jonathan Brenner from award-winning alternative legal resourcing business Lawyers On Demand. For me the most skillful part of the PR job Sophie did here was managing to persuade the Today team to focus on the legal profession's own experience of remote working rather than asking Jonathan to talk more generally. Apparently her winning argument was that if even the legal profession is becoming relaxed about flexible and remote working, then it is clearly no longer the preserve of the wacky, beanbag-toting media and creative industries, but has entered the very heart of the workplace mainstream. 

Well, however you achieved it Sophie, you have our respect. Well done!

"Grafitti fine art" made the news big time this week. First the news broke that an iconic Banksy had been chiseled off the wall of a Poundland shop in London's Wood Green, turning up in the New York art market days later before being withdrawn from sale. Then we heard news of a development of luxury flats in Germany threatening one of the most famous artworks on the Berlin Wall as a 20 metre section was scheduled for demolition to make way for the builders. At the time of writing, hundreds of protesters have gathered to stall progress bearing slogans petitioning Berlin's mayor with "Mr Wowereit, don't tear down this wall", a sly reference to Ronald Reagan's 1987 challenge to Gorbachev.

Another slogan reads: "Does culture no longer have any value?" Isn't it interesting how images created by criminal acts can sometimes metamorphose into items so valuable, either culturally or in terms of pure market value. Well that's art for you...