BBC editor says bosses put Afghan staff’s lives at risk when Taliban swept to power 

A senior BBC editor has accused the corporation of ‘criminal negligence’ and of putting staff’s lives at risk through an insufficient emergency planning in Afghanistan, a tribunal heard.

Saleem Patka, former acting head of the BBC’s Afghan service, claimed the BBC left ‘the majority of our staff exposed to the fickleness and cruelty of the Taliban’.

In a previous case, he claimed minority staff members were being paid less than their white colleagues 

Mr Patka had concerns over a delay in telling staff about an emergency plan for leaving Afghanistan if the situation became too dangerous. 

He raised concerns at various levels of the BBC, including to Director General Tim Davie, and Fran Unsworth, at the time director of news and current affairs.

Mr Patka later took the corporation to an employment tribunal, claiming he was treated unfairly after raising his concerns. 

However, the panel has dismissed Mr Patka’s case.

Saleem Patka, former acting head of the BBC’s Afghan service claimed the BBC had not prepared an adequate exit plan for its staff in Afghanistan in time

The tribunal in London heard that at the beginning of 2021, it became clear the USA would withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the BBC recognised it might have to abandon its office in Kabul.

A contingency plan for staff was reviewed and largely rewritten by Mr Patka with the provision that staff be told immediately about the plan.

In a meeting to debate the plan, many disagreed with this provision due to concerns about a negative reaction, the panel heard.

Mr Tarik Kafala, who was the claimant’s direct manager and head of World Service languages, allegedly decided to delay sharing of the plan.

The tribunal heard that Mr Patka ‘fervently disagreed’ and went above his own line manager in an attempt to overturn this decision.

He wrote to Ms Sarah Ward-Lilley, who was managing editor of news, senior to Mr Kafala, in April 2021.

In the email, Mr Patka wrote: ‘I understand that Tarik [Mr Kafala] and others have started to worry about the reaction from staff in Afghanistan.

‘But ultimately, I think our responsibility is to do what is best, rather than worrying about any short-term embarrassment.

‘I believe the plan outlined on Monday should be implemented immediately, otherwise there is a serious risk that we will be left unprepared if the situation in Afghanistan unravels quickly.’

Mr Patka later emailed Fran Unsworth, director of news and current affairs, in May 2021.

He said: ‘We currently have no actionable contingency plan if the security situation deteriorates and it becomes too dangerous for our journalists to continue working in Afghanistan.

‘In order to put a proper plan in place, we first need to speak to our staff about what that means for them, but Tarik is refusing to allow us to do that.’

Mr Kafala disagreed, believing it was ‘premature’, the tribunal heard.

He said: ‘I had spoken to Fran, Mary and the High-Risk team twice about when we should communicate the emergency plan to staff, before and after the approval of the plan.

‘We all agreed that it was premature to communicate the plan straight after it was approved at the end of March 2021.’

In July 2021, Mr Patak emailed Mr Davie, concerned about the 60 staff members in Afghanistan that he was responsible for.

He also claimed staff had been left exposed to the 'fickleness and cruelty of the Taliban' before the terror group swept to power in Afghanistan last year

He also claimed staff had been left exposed to the ‘fickleness and cruelty of the Taliban’ before the terror group swept to power in Afghanistan last year 

His email stated his belief that the emergency plan was ‘a good step forward’, but it left ‘the majority of our staff exposed to the fickleness and cruelty of the Taliban’.

Mr Patka’s subsequent tribunal claim even accused Mr Davie, Ms Unsworth and Mr Kafala of ‘criminal negligence’ over the safety of staff, language the tribunal described as ‘extreme’.

Mr Patka also claimed that in May 2021, funding arrangements were made by the BBC with the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office that conflicted with the BBC’s editorial independence and alleged this was covered up by one or more of senior management.

He took the corporation to the employment tribunal claiming he had suffered detriments because he had made a total of five ‘protected disclosures’.

The tribunal heard Mr Patka believed there were multiple incidents against him at work where he was deliberately left out of meetings and correspondence because of his complaints about the Afghanistan plan.

Mr Patka, who has previously filed a race discrimination claim against the BBC over inferior pay for ethnic minority workers, also alleged he had been victimised for bringing this previous claim.

However, the tribunal dismissed all of his claims and said Mr Patka was ‘hostile’, had an ‘agenda’ against his management and it did not agree that the BBC had failed in any legal obligation.

Employment Judge Graeme Hodgson said: ‘The reality is that [Mr Patka] had his own agenda. He was unwilling to accept the decision of his own manager. He deliberately sought to overturn the decision of the senior managers by going to a higher level of management.

‘We have found that [Mr Patka] had lost respect for Mr Kafala and has become hostile to his management.

‘As regards to health and safety, we accept [Mr Patka] had in mind protection from being caught up in violence and/or being specifically targeted.

‘We are not satisfied, on the balance of possibility, that [Mr Patka] believed the BBC had an obligation, legally, to protect staff against those dangers in all circumstances.’

The judge described Mr Patka’s evidence on his claim of criminal negligence as ‘unsatisfactory’, adding: ‘There is no attempt to explain what he believed was meant by criminal negligence.’

In regards to the accusation over the breach of editorial independence, the tribunal also stated there were no grounds for this allegation.

Judge Hodgson said: ‘In brief, [Mr Patka] had no grounds for assuming that there was an inappropriate agreement, or that the agreement was any form of contract, or that the agreement had been concealed.

‘He had no grounds for believing that editorial independence was compromised. It follows that any alleged belief was not reasonable.’

Mr Patka previously sued the BBC for racial discrimination, claiming that on three occasions he was promoted his salary was at a ‘lower level than that which was offered or would have been offered to white managers’. 

The BBC fought his race discrimination claim and said Mr Patka’s figures were not from ‘truly comparable groups’. 

Mr Patka worked as a night editor for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 before moving to BBC World.