30 October 2023

One good turn deserves a cold shoulder? : 2004 : BBC World Service Trust, Phnom Penh

 “I understand you’re an expert in messaging,” said the woman sat behind the desk.

I looked blank. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. If she meant SMS text messaging, I did not even own a mobile phone!

“I was told you are experienced in capacity building,” continued the woman, undeterred.

I looked even more blank. What on earth was she talking about? I had just flown half way around the world. This was my first meeting with the boss of the project where I was to work. Yet I had zero understanding of what she had just said. I began to wonder if the office back in London had mistakenly sent the wrong person (me) to the wrong location (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Did she think I was someone else? I had been sent here to do radio training. Had the international wires become crossed somewhere?

It took me several weeks to understand that Giselle Portenier, manager of Cambodia’s BBC World Service Trust project, had been addressing me in ‘NGO-speak’, an esoteric language I had never before encountered. People working in such ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ (er, international charities) apparently use terminology that substitutes long words for concepts which the rest of the world refer to with short words. Some might call this professional obscurantism.

During my first week, Portenier insisted I attend a two-day workshop organised by the Centre for Disease Control concerning drama programmes created to communicate health issues to the population. My takeaways were that NGO staff love the sound of their own voices and try their utmost to turn simple tasks into overcomplicated diagrams and flow charts. I strained to stay awake in Cambodia’s oppressive daytime heat and quickly tired of hearing NGO people talk to each other in a language that was apparently English, but might as well have been Mongolian for all I could understand. Luckily, I managed to excuse myself from a similar two-day workshop about ‘messaging’ the following week.

Why was I in Cambodia? In July 2002, I had been unemployed and applied in desperation for an advertised role with the BBC World Service Trust in Ethiopia. The only thing I recall about that interview was sitting alongside dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah (born two days before me!) in the lobby of Bush House. Having neither attended Oxbridge nor benefited from a family member or acquaintance employed in the Corporation, I was hardly surprised to receive my thirty-seventh consecutive BBC rejection letter. The Holy Grail I had coveted since childhood was receding further over my horizon with every CV submitted.

Fast forward to December 2003. I was in a dead-end job at Ofcom where my line manager Neil Stock had met me on Christmas Eve to say “there is nothing for you to contribute to” the media regulator’s work schedule during the first quarter of the next year. I had just discovered a voicemail message on my work phone from the BBC, asking if I was the ‘Grant Goddard’ who had applied for a job the previous year. My contact details had proven a dead-end and it had resorted to contacting a referee in the United States I had listed who advised that I now worked for ‘The Radio Authority’ … which was found to have closed. I phoned back, confirmed it was me and explained that I had since changed address. Would I be interested in a consultancy role lasting two to three months? Though I had accrued eight weeks’ unused holiday at Ofcom, it refused me paid or unpaid leave to pursue this opportunity … so I resigned.

Roy Head, director of the BBC World Service Trust’s health division, explained by phone that a contract had recently been signed between the Cambodia government and the Corporation to train local staff at two radio stations to produce phone-in shows around health issues. A decade earlier, he had managed the United Nations’ radio station ‘UNTAC’ in Cambodia. Head confided that, only after signing this contract had he discovered that the BBC’s ‘executive producer, radio’ in Cambodia, despite having held numerous posts within the Corporation since 1987, apparently had no experience producing a live radio programme. Neither had the Cambodia project manager who had produced television documentaries for the BBC since 1986. I respected Head’s honesty when he admitted my involvement would help him out of a very large hole. The Cambodia government was becoming increasingly impatient for the training to start, necessitating my arrival as quickly as possible. Yes, the pay (£750 plus US$100 pocket money per week) was not great because it had had to be unexpectedly eked out of an existing budget, but Head promised me better paid similar BBC work afterwards if I would solve his pressing problem.

I nearly never made it to Cambodia. The nurse I was mandated to visit at BBC White City could not locate the required ‘BCG’ vaccination on my left arm and threatened to block my departure for several weeks to redo it. Was I born in Britain? Yes. Did I have paperwork proving I had received the vaccine? Er, I was a child. Where did I receive it? In a health clinic, long gone, at the corner of Upper College Ride and Saddleback Road on the Old Dean Estate in Camberley, 200 metres from the house in which I had been born. After an extended interrogation, as a last resort she inspected my right arm and found a faint tell-tale circular mark there, and expressed astonishment that I was the first person she had encountered with it on the ‘wrong’ arm. All I could presume was that some nurse in the 1960’s had decided it would never matter as council estate children were destined to go nowhere anyway.

On arrival in Phnom Penh, my line manager Chas Hamilton invited me to homemade dinner in his flat and filled my head with gossip about his BBC colleagues. He was particularly incensed that his boss Portenier, before her recent arrival, had allegedly demanded her flat be remodelled at considerable public expense to include, shock horror, a sunken bathtub. As a short-term consultant (given BBC contract number WST001), I preferred to avoid such office politicking. I chose to keep my burning question – how is a BBC employee promoted to a radio management role without having produced a live radio programme? – to myself. The Corporation evidently worked in mysterious ways.

After a morning visit to one of the radio stations in Phnom Penh at which I would be working, the Cambodian BBC driver was en route to the office when I requested he stop for me to buy a takeaway lunch.

“I will take you to a hotel for lunch, sir,” he kindly offered.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I can buy something at one of these roadside shacks and eat it at the office.”

“But they only serve noodles, sir,” he explained patiently.

“Yes, and that is what I want for lunch,” I insisted.

Despite his complete puzzlement, he parked the BBC four-wheel-drive alongside a random food stall, translated my order into Khmer and, minutes later, I left clutching a knotted transparent plastic bag containing my freshly stir-fried order for less than a dollar. At the BBC office, I went to the kitchen, requested a plate, emptied out my food and sat at the dining table to eat it, much to the amazement of the Cambodian staff. My new colleagues found it hard to believe that I ate noodles at home all the time.

From that day forward, I joined the local staff for lunch daily in the BBC kitchen, with between five and fifteen of us gathered around the large dining table for the mandatory two-hour break inherited from French colonialists. Each of us paid the BBC kitchen manager a dollar a day to take our preferences and venture out to numerous street stalls to fulfil our orders. The food was always fantastic and the company was excellent, though I could not understand the Khmer chatter. The project’s Cambodian receptionist sidled up to me and explained with awe:

“In all the time we have been here, not one of the foreigners working here has sat down and ate our food with us, except on special occasions such as Chinese New Year.”

So where did all the ‘foreigners’ go every day? On one occasion, sat at the kitchen table ready to eat lunch, Portenier approached me and insisted I accompany her and the other ex-pats ‘out’. We were driven in several cars to an international hotel that appeared completely devoid of guests, where we were offered menus and then waited over an hour in the lobby for our dishes to arrive. The food, the surroundings and the conversation were all mediocre, though I presume that the BBC was picking up the tab for its employees’ daily lunchtime jollies to various Phnom Penh hotels. Thankfully, I was never invited again.

The BBC had initially ordered my air ticket to return to London three months later. As my work was still far from complete, I had to spend three hours sat uncomfortably on a long wooden bench in a tiny Phnom Penh travel agency that attempted to change the date … unsuccessfully. I decided unilaterally to use the ticket (rather than waste it) to fly home for a quick visit, only to discover that Roy Head, having sent me to Cambodia, was no longer with the BBC, reportedly having become ill after a work trip to Brazil. Back in London, I was called to a meeting with his successor at Bush House, a brusque woman who demonstrated little interest in my work but asked me to spy on my line manager Chas Hamilton and report what he was or was not doing. I refused. I had been hired as a consultant solely to train people in radio, not indulge in espionage. The BBC booked my new ticket to return to Cambodia a week later and gave me boxes of radio equipment to transport in my heavily surcharged, overweight suitcases.

Returned to Phnom Penh, when one of my station projects was about to launch its new weekly live youth phone-in show, I drafted a press release and asked Portenier to approve it, transpose it onto BBC notepaper and circulate it through established PR channels. She refused. I was perplexed. Surely it was positive news to herald the successful completion of part of the BBC’s contract with the Cambodia government. Apparently not. In order not to disappoint the radio station’s production team with whom I had worked so closely for months, I was reduced to secretly commandeering a BBC car and driver when Portenier was absent from the office in order to hand deliver to each of Phnom Penh’s newspapers my press releases in Khmer and English that omitted mention of the BBC's involvement.

This negative response was very dispiriting as it appeared that neither my local project manager, nor my local line manager, nor the replacement BBC manager in London seemed even vaguely appreciative of my success saving their bacon. My second radio station project was almost ready to launch too but I considered now was a good time to return home, having already spent twice as long in Cambodia as my contract had required. The local BBC staff organised a fantastic farewell party for me in the office and gave me presents. Neither Portenier nor Hamilton attended. To be accurate, Hamilton arrived at work after it had finished. At the airport, several of the wonderful Cambodian radio station staff I had trained arrived unexpectedly to see me off. They cried. I cried. They and the lovely local office staff had made my work worthwhile.

By the time I landed in London, my BBC e-mail account had already been cancelled, preventing continuing contact with my colleagues in Cambodia. I sent Portenier an email apologising (ahem!) for not having seen her before I left and thanking her for “all her help”. Her reply lacked a shred of gratitude:

“I know you were planning to do a handover report for David. Did that happen? I know he tried to get in touch in England, but failed.”

My BBC contract had not required me to write a report. Besides, in Cambodia I had been fully occupied each week spending four days from 8am to 5pm training two teams, one day in the radio studio and two days preparing materials for my next sessions, without any BBC input. Meanwhile, the project’s head of radio seemed to have spent most of his time sat in his cosy BBC office. Neither did I know who ‘David’ was. Nevertheless, I offered my services to help out for free in the BBC’s Bush House office, hoping to avail myself of future opportunities. I submitted six applications for advertised vacancies in the BBC World Service Trust during 2004 and 2005, for one of which I was interviewed, but without success. Nobody in the BBC thanked me for my work bailing it out in Cambodia or offered me the better paid, follow-on opportunities I had been promised. I had no idea how to contact Roy Head once he had left the BBC.

When I signed on for Unemployment Benefit, my most recent work in Phnom Penh was viewed suspiciously because, whilst I had been away, British tabloid newspaper front pages had splashed stories about 1970’s pop star ‘Gary Glitter’s exploits with underage boys in Cambodia. The young 'JobCentre' officer instructed me to apply for a radiology vacancy in a local hospital, not comprehending it was totally unrelated to radio production.

Giselle Portenier completed one year in charge of the Cambodia project before leaving the BBC and returning to Canada.

In 2006, Chas Hamilton lauded the youth phone-in radio show I and my trainees had created as the project’s “most popular”, noting that “all members of the production team … had no previous media experience before we plucked them from university and trained them.” His invisible ‘executive production’ role while I was there had apparently proven so successful that the BBC promoted him to manage their entire Cambodia project. I hope he enjoyed the accompanying apartment’s sunken bathtub he had seemed to envy so much.

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