Jo Burgin’s relationship with fellow Al Jazeera English employee Steve Clark – and their refusal to work in separate departments – were among the factors that led to her dismissal, an employment tribunal has ruled.
The Central London Employment Tribunal reached a “unanimous judgment” last week that Burgin had not been discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or sex.
In its ruling, seen in full by Press Gazette, the tribunal also acknowledged that there had been concerns raised about Burgin’s ability to do her job as head of planning at the Arab broadcaster.
Burgin joined Al Jazeera English in April 2005 and left last year when her two-year contract was not renewed. She was seeking more than £1m in damages, claiming she had effectively been sacked.
The tribunal heard that Burgin was recommended for the job by Clark, her partner and the channel’s director of news, who “gave his absolute undertaking that there would be a total separation between the workplace and his private relationship”. The pair were subsequently married.
Al Jazeera English managing director Nigel Parsons told the court that he had no objection to employing couples, provided they worked in separate departments. But Burgin reported to Al Anstey, the Al Jazeera English director of news, who in turn reported to Clark.
The tribunal said it had found evidence that staff “were intimidated by Ms Burgin’s relationship with Mr Clark and the fact that, in the line management, only Mr Anstey was between [them].”
Anstey had also raised “concerns about Ms Burgin’s editorial knowledge and ability”, according to the tribunal. Al Jazeera English head of output John Pullman had also voiced concern that Burgin’s “knowledge of the Middle East’s history and politics was limited” and claimed she “made mistakes about basic facts”.
The court heard that Parsons had asked Clark to move to the programming department in the role of director of programmes to avoid being in the same management line as Burgin, but that he rejected this.
Burgin had claimed that the Al Jazeera English deputy managing director, Ibrahim Helal, had frequently clashed with her.
But the tribunal said there was no evidence that Helal had treated Burgin any differently to other Al Jazeera English staff.
“The evidence is that Mr Helal clashed with journalists and support staff on many occasions,” it said.
“In addition, news managers all complained about Mr Helal. Their complaints were similar, namely of editorial interference by Mr Helal.”
Burgin complained that Helal would consult her deputy, Ramsey Zerifah, on editorial matters instead of discussing them directly with her.
The tribunal found that Helal was “consistent in his disregard for the head of department” throughout the organisation, and often went to managers’ deputies and other members of a department.
“It is clear that Mr Helal and Ms Burgin did not have a harmonious relationship,” the tribunal ruled.
“However, the same can be said of Mr Helal’s relationship with a number of the male members of staff, not least Mr Clark.
“From the evidence we have received, Mr Helal was a committed journalist and a perfectionist and treated all members of staff in the same way.”
In its final ruling, the tribunal said: “The respondent has shown that the treatment in dismissing Ms Burgin was not on the grounds of her sex, race or religion.
“It was because of difficulties arising from the line management in relation to Mr Clark and the refusal of either Ms Burgin or Mr Clark to move to the programmes department.
“Her performance in the news department was a further reason for dismissal.”