A BBC World Service journalist sacked after he declined to put a report of the birth of Prince George out on a Sri Lankan news service has lost a tribunal claim for race discrimination.
Chandana Bandara lost his job on 15 August 2014 and claimed he was unfairly targeted because of his belief that the Tamil people of Sri Lanka have been persecuted by the Sinhala-dominant government.
- January 22, 2021
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The London employment tribunal found that such a belief does not fulfill the criteria for race discrimination and that in any case the dismissal process was found to be a fair one.
Among those who gave evidence on Bandara’s behalf were high-profile journalists Francis Harrison and Callum Macrae (the director of Emmy-nominated documentary No Fire Zone).
The tribunal ruling describes a period of discord at the BBC Sinhala service as it recounts the events leading up to Bandara’s dismissal.
Bandara had worked for the BBC since 1995 and been a senior producer on the Sinhala service since 2000. In this role Bandara, who has a Sinhalese father and Tamil mother, was in charge of editorial output on the service when editor Priyath Liyanage was away.
The tribunal heard that most of the rest of the team were of Sinhalese heritage (including Liyanage).
Bandara was in charge on 23 July 2013, the day after birth of Prince George to the Duchess of Cambridge. He decided not to prioritise the royal birth story, partly – he said – because it was the 30th anniversary of Black July (a wave of anti-Tamil violence that saw thousands killed in Sri Lanka).
Bandara resisted management pressure to cover the story but relented and it was published online at 12.08pm on 23 July, the tribunal was told.
After disciplinary proceedings, Bandara was found to have been guilty of gross misconduct and given a final written warning.
The tribunal found that in view of Bandara’s clean disciplinary record over the previous 18 years this was too severe a punishment.
In November 2013 the BBC Sinhala service broadcast a documentary by BBC journalist Francis Harrison called Sri Lanka’s Unfinished War which detailed human rights violations perpetrated by the government against Tamils.
Harrison had secured legal agreements from BBC lawyers that the documentary would be broadcast in full, the tribunal heard. But while the BBC Tamil service broadcast it in full, the Sinhala service opted to leave out an account of torture in rehabilitation camps and add in false claims from a Sri Lankan military spokesman that Harrison had made the documentary with a Tamil activist organisation.
Harrison complained to the BBC, and – according to the tribunal – “a very significant fuss ensued”.
The editor in charge while this happened, Liyanage, was disciplined but not fired.
The tribunal heard that Bandara was away from work when the editing and additions to the Harrison documentary were made.
The tribunal heard that on his first day back after publication of the “distorted” Harrison piece, Bandara called Liyanage at home and shouted at him.
He was later accused of misconduct over a claim that he shouted at another colleague.
Bandara was also accused of making a derogatory reference to another manager, Dejan Radojevic (who was involved in the decision to make the amendments to the Harrison documentary).
Rejecting Bandara’s claim that he was targeted because of his support for Sri Lankan Tamils, the tribunal said: “Our conclusion is that we are not persuaded that the views expressed by the complainant constitute a philosophical belief attracting the status of a protected characteristic within the Equality Act. It is too local or limited. It is not a believe but a desire to take action founded on knowledge.”
It also said: "Nothing we have heard or read gives any support to the assertion that any of the claimant's fellow employees knew that he held the philosophical belief that the alleges here."
Although it was “manifestly inappropriate” for Bandara to receive a final written warning over his reluctance to include news of the birth of Prince George, it nonetheless upheld his subsequent dismissal.
It said: “We are confident the process was reasonable. It was extensive, lengthy and detailed.
“There were numerous witnesses and enormous quantities of management time spent on this. There were internal interviews; several disciplinary hearings; analyses; reports and disciplinary hearings.
“There were huge amounts of documents apparently all considered at the final hearings. By any standards this was a reasonable investigation.”