UK Politics

Defend Inigo Wilson?

Inigo Wilson, who works as a “community affairs spokesman” for the mobile phone company, Orange, wrote an article at the beginning of the month on the Tory website, Conservative Home, entitled “A Lefty Lexicon“. The article consists of an A to Z set of defined terms. Those terms included the following:

Palestinians – archetype ‘victims’ no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do – or done in their name – because of ‘root causes’ or ‘legitimate grievances’.

Islamophobic – anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work.

The posting of the article resulted in a campaign, organised apparently through the website of MPAC, a group which advocates “non-violent jihad”, and which republishes racist material from neo-Nazi websites.

As a result, Mr Wilson has been suspended from his job. Orange has stated:

“We have received a number of complaints regarding the content of an article written by an Orange employee and published on an independent website which has offended some of our customers.

“We take the opinions of our customers very seriously and believe that this matter warrants further investigation. We have therefore suspended an employee while this investigation takes place.”

Mr Wilson has not been sacked: merely suspended. Andrew Woodman has been told:

To clarify, the suspension of an employee is not intended to imply that the employee in question has done wrong. It is a neutral act that allows us to conduct a full investigation and reach a conclusion based on facts.

I will gladly update you regarding the outcome of the investigation

I hope that Mr Wilson does not lose his job.

More to the point, I would prefer it if companies did not sack employees for material that they write on their blogs: unless, perhaps, they betray corporate secrets or defame their employers. The effect of censuring employees for what they say has the effect of chilling public discourse: as the demise of John Band’s Shot by Both Sides blog illustrates. Bloggers can write under pseudonyms: but even that does not necessarily protect an employee from discovery and discipline.

There is evidently a free speech issue at stake here: but it is not necessarily a decisive one.

Orange is not a public body. It is not, for example, a university, where free expression is a key component and a requirement of academic freedom: the defining characteristic of a university. The case of Frank Ellis, a Russian Studies lecturer who expressed the view that black people are less intelligent than white people is a stronger one. There is a reasonable argument to be made that he should have been supported, notwithstanding the profoundly offensive nature of his views, and the difficulty of tying a strong defence of academic freedom to statements made in relation, not to his discipline, but to anthropology: an area in which he had no expertise.

Dilpazier Aslam is not an instructive precedent for this case, either. The Guardian is an expressly liberal paper which should not have employed, knowingly, an activist in a racist, extreme-right political party. It should certainly not have allowed that activist to use his employment to disseminate – without disclosing the reporter’s extremist political activism – barely disguised propaganda for that organisation: but rather employed their cub reporter to write about gardening, cars, or some other more appropriate subject.

Inigo Wilson’s case is a closer parallel in some ways with Arthur Redfearn, a BNP councillor sacked because “his presence on the workforce constituted a health and safety hazard…[because]he, or the vehicles he was using, might be attacked, risking injury to the disabled people being transported. “

Orange is a public company, which is entitled to take any decision it wants to, consistent with the employees’ contract of employment, and the law, in relation to its employees. Its first responsibility is to its shareholders. If it thinks that it is going to be targetted by an anti-Orange lobbying campaign organised by an Islamist group, then it is entirely within its rights to suspend its employee in order to evaluate whether it ought to take any action.

As things stand for Orange, it is caught between a rock and a hard place. It will have concluded, perhaps rightly, that it will be targeted by consumer action if it does not respond to the many complaints it will have received. It will know by now that, as a result of the suspension, it will also be receiving the sort of publicity that companies pay well to avoid. Indeed Iain Dale is encouraging his readers to “vent your views to their Media Relations Director Stuart Jackson, here’s his email –”.

Any which way but lose.

Mr Wilson works in Public Relations. He did not identify his employer on his blog. However, his place of employment was easily discovered by MPAC readers. I do not know what a “community affairs spokesman” does, but it may be that Orange is in the process of considering whether he can continue, effectively, to perform that role if he is regarded with suspicion by a section of the population. This story has legs. Unfortunately for Inigo Wilson, his name is a memorable one, and will evidently become more familiar to many people in the next few days. If he is not ultimately sacked, he may need to be redeployed.

So, should I defend Inigo Wilson?

The content of his article is a subject on which I will not comment: except to say that to the extent that free expression is the principle at stake, the content of the speech is largely an irrelevant consideration.

I do think that companies have a right and a duty to consider the effect on their share price of the conduct of their employees, and their ability – within the constraints of employment law – to take action against their employees if they do damage to the company for which they work. It would have been sensible – certainly, with the benefit of hindsight – for Mr Wilson to have written anonymously, as most of the MPAC forum contributors who orchestrated the campaign against him do.

The central question, therefore, appears to me to be this. To what extent does, and should, employment law balance two occasionally competing interests: the ability of workers to speak freely, and the right of companies to manage their employees efficiently, in the interests of that company?

On balance, I feel I should defend Inigo Wilson: if only because, as a blogger, I have a particular obligation to campaign for unfettered public discourse. That was the view I took in the case of John Band, and perhaps should have been the side on which I ought to have fallen in the cases of Ellis and Redfearn.

Those blogs lining up behind Inigo Wilson include the leftish Chicken Yoghurt, and the right-leaning bloggers: Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes. By contrast, Stuart Bruce, a Labour Councillor, defends the suspension and also calls for Mr Wilson’s memberhip of the Tory Party – if he is a member – to be suspended as well.

Update: Conservative Home comes out fighting.

(via Sunny at Pickled Politics)