23 April 2024

Walking on the Chinese glass ceiling : 2004 : FM 102 Radio, Women’s Media Centre of Cambodia

 I was standing over the motionless body of my line manager. He was dead to the world, naked under the sheet on his bed. Neither my arrival in his studio apartment through its wide-open front door, nor the chatter of little ‘street boys’ passing up and down the building’s internal staircase, nor the morning sunshine streaming through the open windows, nor the noise of rush hour traffic on the road below seemed to have stirred him. Should I call out? Should I nudge him? Since the limit of my responsibilities to the BBC had already been sorely tested by a recent health & safety ‘issue’, I decided that playing butler to my boss would stretch my patience one step too far. I turned around, leaving him asleep, walked out and descended the stairs to rejoin the driver waiting out front in the BBC SUV.

It was the ‘big day’ in March when my trainees were to interview candidates for two radio presenter jobs. Charles ‘Chas’ Hamilton had asked to attend too, so I had arranged a detour at eight o’clock to pick him up en route from my hotel to the radio station. This was unusual because, to date, he had demonstrated scant interest in my 28 hours per week of sessions training teams at two Phnom Penh radio stations in production skills, apparently preferring to remain at his desk in the air-conditioned, open-plan BBC office. On my arrival in Cambodia, rather than having furnished a training plan or schedule, Hamilton had invited me for an evening meal in his apartment, bending my ear with gossip about the BBC World Service Trust’s recently arrived Canadian manager. Now I was having to spend what remained of my seven-day working week determining which skills I needed to demonstrate to my teams and how to instruct them when I understood not one word of Khmer. 

Hamilton was oblivious to the supreme irony of my bedside presence that morning. Before departing London, BBC management had confided that, only after having signed contracts in December 2003 to supply radio training to two Cambodian stations, had it understood that its prior internal appointee to head the country’s radio projects had no experience producing live radio programmes. Having been hurriedly headhunted as a result of my international track record in radio production and presentation during three decades, my latest mission was necessary solely to bail out a consequence of the Corporation’s arcane appointment system. Meanwhile, in spite of my radio experience, my own applications over two decades for 43 BBC vacancies had resulted in thirteen interviews but not a single job offer.

Although the BBC contract required me primarily to train in radio production, it quickly became evident that, in order for my young but enthusiastic trainees to appoint inexperienced presenters for the station’s new youth phone-in programme, I needed to teach them how to word a job vacancy advertisement, shortlist applicants, interview candidates and take personnel decisions. They were fortunate that, after a decade assisting in my father’s self-employed architectural business, I had taken my first management post in 1978, hiring and firing people since then and managing teams of more than fifty. In Cambodia, my role became necessarily upgraded to informal ‘management consultant’ despite having had to accept a BBC freelance pay rate lower than the mediocre job at Ofcom from which I had just resigned in the UK … and undoubtedly lower than Hamilton’s pensioned salary as head of radio.

On arrival at the Women’s Media Centre that morning, I found my trainees already assembled in the first-floor radio studio to commence job interviews. I waited in the downstairs lobby to greet the candidates (a bow accompanying ‘hello’ the limit of my Khmer communication skills) and usher them upstairs. However, as Hamilton had yet to arrive, the schedule soon started to run over and resulted in successive applicants seated together in the reception area, a situation I had hoped to avoid. Eventually appearing apologetically an hour late, Hamilton would never be told about that morning’s ‘sleeping beauty’ encounter. It was more important to proceed with the tasks at hand.

During previous weeks’ sessions, the trainees had agreed upon three candidate tasks: an interview by the production team with a prepared list of questions allocated to each member; a script I had written and had translated, to be read into a studio microphone for recording; and a faked phone conversation recorded with a production member pretending to be a caller, to test each potential presenter’s spontaneity and improvisation skills. None of the candidates had prior radio experience, which it why it was imperative to identify ‘potential’ rather than ‘accomplishment’. The planned radio show was destined to become Cambodia’s first live youth phone-in, for which we needed one male and one female presenter.

Having completed the interview round, we broke for the mandatory two-hour lunch, me and Hamilton returning to the BBC office by car. I shared lunch with local staff at the kitchen table, while Hamilton took his usual sojourn with the ex-pat employees to a local restaurant. Afterwards, he did not accompany my return to the radio station for the afternoon session in which my trainees discussed and contrasted the candidates’ performances, assisted by BBC translator Keo Sothearith. I was incredibly impressed by the professionalism with which they ranked the candidates against criteria we had previously decided and then unanimously agreed upon the most suitable pair of applicants.

I was pleased that the whole interview process had been done and dusted so competently and quickly. However, just as I was ready to pat myself on the metaphorical back, a passionate conversation broke out amongst my trainees that the translator seemed reluctant to explain in English. I had to press him repeatedly to tell me what new issue had arisen, since there had been undivided agreement only a few minutes earlier.

“They say it is not possible to employ the woman because she is Chinese,” he explained embarrassedly. “They agree she is the most competent … but the job has to be given to a Khmer woman.”

I was shocked. Clarification was necessary for me to understand this issue. Though I could not discern the distinction, I was told the woman was ethnically Chinese (0.6% of Cambodia’s population) though not a recent immigrant, apparently speaking Khmer perfectly. Wikipedia explains:

“Most Chinese are descended from 19th–20th-century settlers who came in search of trade and commerce opportunities during the time of the French protectorate.”

I had read about ethnic tensions in Cambodia, but primarily involving neighbouring Thailand with which there had long been territorial disputes. In January 2003, following an alleged remark by Thai actress Suwanna Konying that Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple actually belonged to Thailand, a mob in Phnom Penh had burnt down the Thai embassy and attacked Thai businesses, forcing the evacuation by military aircraft of 400 Thai citizens to their homeland. I had recently passed Thailand’s newly opened replacement embassy in Phnom Penh, surrounded by high walls for improved security.

A 2021 academic paper reported:

“Although anti-Chinese riots are rare in Cambodia, the ethnic Chinese in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era experienced some of the most severe repression in the world. The situation had improved by the 1990s, following the Hun Sen government’s abolishment of discriminatory policies towards them.”

The Minority Rights Group noted:

“After 1990, [the Chinese] were allowed to celebrate Chinese festivals and religious practices, then to re-establish Chinese associations and conduct business activities. They subsequently started operating their own schools…”

For the next hour, I felt compelled to argue that it was morally wrong to discriminate against a job applicant purely on the grounds of their ethnicity. It was essential to appoint the best candidate for the job. I told my trainees that the BBC would never countenance such behaviour and, since the BBC was funding their training, it was essential to follow guidelines set out within the BBC editorial handbook (a copy of which I usefully brandished from my briefcase). The trainees had already written a sign that said ‘BBC office’ (in Khmer) on their production room within the radio station, even though they were not BBC employees (as neither was freelance me).

However, I was internally conflicted by my own argument. As a 43-time applicant to the BBC who had been rejected 43 times, I was well aware from personal experience that discrimination was alive and well and living inside the Corporation. Following one of my post-interview rejections at the end of a three-month wait, I had phoned the BBC to ask precisely why I had been rejected yet again and was informed that it would be necessary for me to prove to interviewers that I was “one of us”. The unspoken implication was that I could not join the BBC ‘club’ unless either I was posh, spoke a certain way, had attended private schools or been educated at Oxford or Cambridge. Perhaps I needed a relative who was already employed there. None of the above qualified me.

Even BBC director general Greg Dyke had commented in 2001:

"I think the BBC is hideously white. […] The figures we have at the moment suggest that quite a lot of people from ethnic backgrounds that we do attract to the BBC leave. Maybe they don't feel at home, maybe they don't feel welcome."

Though I had the advantage of being white, it was evident that the BBC discriminated on multiple levels. During the decades since my love of radio had blossomed at primary school, my ambition had always been to work in BBC radio. Apart from my current freelance contract, dispatched to the opposite side of the world due to the Corporation’s ineptitude, my dream was never to be realised.

In the end, I had to give up arguing with my trainees. Cambodia was not my country. I could not pretend to understand its culture or heritage. Its history was turbulent. The people’s identity was complex. I gave in to their desire to appoint the second-best female candidate for the job. I hated myself for giving in. I had been on the receiving end of discrimination on too many occasions over too long a period in several countries. But I had lost the argument. I returned to the BBC office with the names of the two presenters whom the team had chosen. Yes, I confirmed, they were the best candidates (cringe). Both quickly became astoundingly competent radio presenters.

Later that month, Charles Hamilton arrived in our Phnom Penh office one morning and explained that he had lost a BBC laptop computer on the journey from home. It would need to be replaced. Within the hour, the number of laptops he said he had lost that day had increased to two. His comments, combined with the memory of my early morning visit to his apartment, made me contemplate that the BBC staff induction programme should be appended with an additional topic: ‘How to close and lock the front door of your accommodation’.

During the decade following my extended mission in Cambodia, I applied for a further twenty BBC job vacancies and was rejected for all.

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