27 November 2023

Health & safety & death in the workplace : 2004 : BBC World Service Trust, Phnom Penh

 We were standing in a concert hall designed like a futuristic room on the ‘Discovery One’ spaceship in the film ‘2001’. Every feature was brilliant white. White plastic seats. White walls. White ceiling. When the house lights were switched on, it was a dazzling sight. In 1968, my father had accompanied me to watch that sci-fi movie at our local cinema because my school project concerned the American space race. Simultaneously, maybe an unknown architect somewhere had exited a theatre, sufficiently inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic vision to design their next project, this room, all-white.

The huge hall appeared little used and surprisingly intact, despite the sprawling two-story concrete headquarters of ‘Radio National Kampuchea’ [RNK] in which it was built exhibiting significant evidence of the raging civil war that had started with the overthrow of Cambodia leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March 1970. I wondered to myself whether this concert hall had served as a secret location for the Khmer Rouge leadership to enjoy a Friday night knees-up after a hard week’s work torturing and murdering fellow citizens. There might be ghosts here that would be best undisturbed.

“You will be training our staff here,” ordered Tan Yan, RNK director general, waving his hand around the cavernous hall. 

“Er …,” I replied, on the verge of telling him that this was no suitable venue to train a handful of his staff in radio production. But I managed to restrain myself from contradicting this Cambodia government appointee. I recalled that, only months prior, Chour Chetharith – deputy editor of an independent Phnom Penh radio station ‘Ta Prohm 90.5 FM’ critical of the country’s ruling party – had been shot dead by two gunmen on a motorbike on arrival at his workplace. Like anybody, I would like to live.

From his instruction to me, it was evident that our host likely had never made a radio programme, had scant idea how radio programmes were produced and had never needed to learn. His role, in charge of the government’s one national radio channel, was to ensure that its output caused no problems for his masters. We had just come from an initial meeting in his office, a cramped room awash with paper and lacking any twentieth century technology other than a telephone and an electric fan, but weirdly reminiscent of a North London taxi cab office. Then he had shepherded our delegation into a long narrow room, empty apart from two lines of chairs on opposing walls. Speeches were made in Khmer by government men sat opposite. My BBC colleague said something in English. We all stood up, uncomfortably close together in that small sweaty space, a photograph was taken and printed in the following day’s newspaper, trumpeting the first partnership between the Cambodia government and the BBC to produce radio programmes.

After the concert hall, our guided tour of the radio station took us to a large windowless office crammed with desks piled high with papers and occupied by scribbling staff. Our host explained that this was the nerve centre of his operation where everything had to be ‘checked’. Strangely, there were no signs of radio production equipment. The sign on the office door said ‘CENSORS’. This is where every script written by lowly radio employees was edited by important managers to ensure the words’ suitability for broadcast to the nation. Then it was recorded onto analogue tape in an unseen studio somewhere, to be returned here for checking that the announcer had not inserted any personal inflection or inference into their reading of the approved script. Every item within the station’s output was created this way. Not one minute of ‘live’ content had ever been transmitted. If aliens were to invade, this radio would inform Cambodians a week after their abduction to a distant galaxy.

We were then taken to a large darkened room in the bowels of the building, filled with standalone metal shelf units on which the station’s tape archives were stored. Thousands of items were evident, many in boxes, some not, much seemingly uncatalogued, some unspooling all over the floor. It was an unholy mess. No air conditioning. No organisation. But it was surprising it had survived at all the Khmer Rouge era. Right here, since the station’s launch in 1947 under the supervision of the Ministry of Propaganda, we were told there were priceless recordings of musicians, interviews and news reports spanning the country’s turbulent history … if you could ever find them amongst the chaos. I was awestruck.

Then it was down to work. The BBC had requested interviews with a dozen of RNK’s existing staff, from which we would choose a radio production team whom I would train to create (shock horror!) a live weekly phone-in programme, the first in the station’s history. We decamped to one of several unused rooms whose doors had been removed and that opened onto the compound, where we sat around a group of old desks pushed together in the middle. No air conditioning. Just a bare room and the three of us: the BBC’s radio manager in Cambodia, Chas Hamilton; BBC translator Keo Sothearith; and freelance me. We had a list of staff names and that was all. No CV’s. No idea who we were about to see.

One by one, our candidates arrived and what ensued was the most bizarre round of interviews I have ever encountered. Asked what their present job entailed, what skills they possessed and what they wanted to achieve in their career, most failed to answer anything at all. Some just stared at us as if we were mad. Several answered “I do what my boss tells me”. None appeared enthusiastic about their work or the potential of training with the BBC. Reluctance would be a gross understatement. I wondered to myself how they had secured their jobs in radio in the first place if their communication ‘skills’ were so poor. They seemed to consider our polite enquiries as interrogation, as if we might incarcerate them for any incorrect answer … or worse. Perhaps the government radio station staff were still being managed through ‘fear’, just as the Khmer Rouge had terrorised the population not so long ago.

By the time we reached our last interviewee, we had noticed that all our candidates had been dressed in black. We asked why. Our last man explained that one of their female colleagues at the station had recently been killed by falling masonry from the crumbling war-torn building, so the staff would be attending the funeral that afternoon. We looked at each other open-mouthed. We were sitting in a death trap. Oh dear! What were we doing there? Despite me having interviewed potential candidates for radio jobs in many countries, this selection proved the most difficult to assess because we had elicited almost no relevant information. We remained there a while afterwards to discuss our preferences, deciding to select the marginally least reticent six staff and hope for the best. I felt anxious about how I could train people who appeared so disinterested.

Our morning’s work done, we left the room and headed to the director’s office to thank him and say goodbye. It was empty. We walked out to the front gates of the compound and were astonished to find them locked from the outside. We walked back to the building and wandered around offices on the two floors, shouting ‘hello’. It was completely deserted. Like their former colonial masters, the staff must have left en masse at precisely midday and would not return for two hours. We had been locked in without anyone anticipating that their morning visitors might still be present.

All the three of us could do was walk through foliage around the inside of the high perimeter zinc fence and look for a gap to escape. Eventually we did find a small hole where the metal had suffered damage, we prised it open and, bending down, could just about crawl through. By then, we had been outdoors in the midday sun for a while and, once returned to the BBC office, we desperately needed refreshment. It was a bizarre end to a bizarre morning of meetings at the government radio station.

That afternoon, after reflecting upon our experience, I told my local line manager, Chas Hamilton, and the BBC Cambodia project manager, Giselle Portenier, that I considered the RNK premises a wholly unsuitable venue for me to train staff. Was there a room in the BBC building I could use instead? The local staff showed me a conference room with a boardroom table that seemed ideal. I almost fainted when I realised I had seen this exact space, with its large circular motif embedded in the marble floor, during a dream five years earlier. Not for the first time, ‘déjà vu’ sneaks up out of nowhere to surprise you in the strangest situations.

To me, it seemed self-evident that this room – in a secure, air-conditioned environment with access to a kitchen and toilet facilities – was the perfect solution to hold my training sessions two full days each week for the next few months. I was taken aback to be told that neither Hamilton (who had visited RNK with me) nor Portenier (who had not) agreed. Apparently, the BBC’s contract with the government insisted the training would take place on-site at RNK and that was considered the end of it. Before making that agreement, had anyone from the BBC actually visited the RNK building? This stalemate lasted more than a month. Maddeningly, in January the BBC in London had sent me to Cambodia to start work with the utmost urgency and yet, by March, I was still unable to commence training one of my two radio production teams.

In desperation, I felt forced to send this formal email on 30 March to Hamilton and Portenier:

“I feel I should flag that no specific resolution has yet been agreed to the health and safety issue of the RNK building.

After my visit to RNK on 2 March 2004, I immediately expressed my concern (verbally) to Charles and Giselle about the health and safety risk of undertaking training work at the RNK premises. In subsequent conversations with Charles, Giselle and Lori [McDougall], possible remedies were discussed that involved training RNK staff off-site.

Paragraph 10(5)(a) of the WST [BBC World Service Trust] Freelance Terms Of Trade requires the Freelance to “make an assessment of all risks to health and safety reasonably foreseeable by him/her that may affect the WST or any others arising out of or in any way connected with the performance of the Contract” and to “promptly make and give effect to arrangements to eliminate or adequately control such risks.” The Freelance is made responsible for health and safety issues.

The Freelance is obliged to “notify the WST accordingly,” which I have done (verbally), and I will reiterate (in writing) my assessment: The RNK building is in a terrible state of repair and looks as though it has not been maintained for at least a decade, maybe longer. Most exterior windows have no glass and many of the rooms no longer have doors. Only a few rooms seem to have air conditioning. We learnt that a member of staff has recently been killed by masonry falling from the building. There is little or no visible security, and the large front reception area within the building is completely empty. When we went to leave the premises at noon, we found all exit gates were padlocked, and the building devoid of any staff to assist. We eventually found an exit through a gap in a zinc fence to the rear of the building. We have yet to see any kind of refreshment facility, or inspect the toilet facilities.

I do not feel that this is a safe environment in which to spend several days a week training RNK staff. Such training could be arranged off-site without any loss of relevant radio facilities (since RNK has no live studio/production environment relevant to the training). As you are aware, I suggested that training could instead be conducted at the BBC office and/or ‘FM 102’ (or elsewhere).

I am sure that we can work together to resolve this issue and commence the training of RNK staff.”

Still enduring no local approval, I then had to write a similar email to the BBC office in London which resulted in further queries, more correspondence but, eventually, grudging acceptance that my work could be undertaken in the conference room only metres away from my office desk. The outcome was that training sessions which should have started in January did not commence until April, by which time the plan had been for me to return home. However, having just won such a frustratingly minor victory, I felt it would have been irresponsible to leave immediately, so I offered to extend my time in Cambodia a further few months. Nonetheless, the RNK phone-in programme had still not launched by the time I eventually left, sadly as a direct result of these delays attributable to the BBC. This was the first time I had been employed by the BBC, as well as my first work for an international charity, and my experience with ex-pat managers had proven far from productive.

By contrast, my training sessions in the BBC conference office with the RNK staff, about whom we had harboured such initial doubts, proved to be amazingly positive. They were wonderful people who taught me as much about Cambodia as I hopefully taught them about radio. I was so sad to leave them without having seen through their phone-in programme, which finally launched on-air in October.

I never returned to the RNK building. However, I did run into the station’s director at the press launch of some health project in Phnom Penh that the BBC insisted I attend. We stood together in silence in the garden of the venue, a small high circular table between us on which we placed our free drinks. Conversation was impossible. My knowledge of French proved irrelevant because the language had been effectively extinguished by Khmer Rouge assassinations of anyone vaguely academic in the 1970’s. This middle-aged government man smiled at me friendlily, though I found myself wondering what ‘successes’ he might have achieved in Year Zero to have sufficiently impressed the ruling party.

Once back in London, I wrote an email to UNESCO explaining that I had viewed RNK’s broadcast archives and believed they should be preserved, catalogued and stored in an improved environment because of their historical significance not only to Cambodia, but globally. No reply. I tried my best!

I had had a job to do … flying to Cambodia.

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