We must not allow race to prevent us from criticising poor leadership

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The Independent Online

There is a file in my cabinet which I have been unable to open for five years. It contains a newspaper article I once wrote and a pile of letters. This article nearly cost me my career, shook up my confidence and made me understand how the British Establishment (for there is such a thing) can go into action to destroy someone. Even as I read its fast- fading contents this morning, I felt my stomach tightening again. I recalled the months of terror when libel action threatened and I knew that newspapers didn't protect freelancers as well as they did their own. Very, very powerful people were gunning for me.

The article was a profile of Kamlesh Bahl, who has recently resigned as vice-president of the Law Society following the findings of an independent inquiry, led by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Griffiths, which found her guilty of bullying staff. Ms Bahl is challenging the findings and together with her lawyer, Cherie Blair, has accused the Law Society of racial and sexual discrimination.

My article was written when she was the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Her appointment had not been well received by campaigning groups, partly because she was a Tory appointment and partly because she had no record of fighting for women's equality. I was interested in exploring whether her race was the hidden issue underneath this resentment and whether expectations were either too high or low as a result.

Even though she was the head of a publicly funded equalities body, she refused to be interviewed. Dozens of people who knew her were interviewed instead, none wishing to be identified. But ("please, strictly off the record") a number did speak up, and a couple were indeed racist, a point I made clear in my piece. They saw her as an uppity Asian who once had servants and so had no respect for her workers. I found these comments highly unpleasant and deliberately used them to show the noxious fumes that were gathering.

But the rest were genuine opinions from people who found it intolerable to work with or under Ms Bahl but were too scared to say so because she had many friends in high places, including some of our top lawyers and a number of self-important Tory wives who regarded her as their protegee. The day the article was printed all hell broke loose.

The Tory wives were out first with their indignation blazing. I had written a racist article by quoting people who expressed racist views. Kafka must have stood up in his grave at this one. This was "smutty" journalism. They were followed by Asian leaders, famous solicitors and QCs; even people who had spoken to me now denied having done so. Private, clubby letters against me were written to the editor of the paper and a couple of public-speaking invitations were withdrawn.

This is why I find it unconvincing when Ms Bahl today alleges that what is happening to her is a result of racism and sexism. I am, like her, a middle-class Asian woman. My race or gender did not protect me from the undeserved onslaught on my reputation, which she did not discourage. But the more interesting question is this. Should black and Asian leaders expect never to be criticised?

Those who flooded out the letters pages seemed to be arguing that black and Asian people in positions of authority need always to be supported because they have overcome prejudices to get to where they are. I say nothing about Kamlesh Bahl in that regard, but this attitude is rubbish. I know of a number of organisations - some set up to confront racism - where appalling men and women from the visible communities have been appointed by boards on which the great and the good were well represented. Among those of us in the know, it is common knowledge that these leading lights have treated staff like dirt, paid off those threatening industrial tribunal complaints, and in the end departed with money in their pockets and glowing references that enable them to inflict themselves on other institutions with the soft hush of discretion to protect them.

Bad leadership is not confined to black and Asian people, but with so few of them in positions of authority and influence, it matters more how those in this first wave conduct themselves. I believe that, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is not acceptable to demand that black and Asian Britons hand over their support to a leader simply because he or she is "one of us".

A few months before he died, I had an argument with Bernie Grant about this loyalty thing. He felt strongly that we should vote for black and Asian candidates in the London elections. I said that such expectations were now out of date, that we were a sophisticated electorate who would vote for the candidates we believed would make a difference. The two were not necessarily the same at all - although they truly were in the case of Bernie Grant himself, which is why he will be missed by so many of us.

The other difficulty is this. Do bad black and Asian leaders use the race card cynically when it suits them? And is this one reason why so many other obviously talented people from this community are kept down and out? If establishments see that, even where there is real evidence of misconduct or ineptitude, black and Asian people or women have no qualms about raising the shrill cry of racism or sexism, they may be even less likely than they are now of allowing in these excluded constituencies.

It is contemptible that people should seek to use racism - which is all too real in the lives of so many people - as a way of protecting their own failings. Remember the demeaning sight of Clarence Thomas, the right- wing US Supreme Court nominee, enemy of affirmative action, who was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a black law professor? Where did he run when attacked? Into the arms of suddenly discovered disadvantage: "I never asked to be nominated Mr Chairman, I am a victim of this process."

This dangerous "black wash" needs to be rejected by all those people who are truly committed to equality and justice. As Sailesh Mehta, of the Society of Asian Lawyers, said when asked about Ms Bahl: "We are always concerned whenever the race card is used that it is not devalued in any way." Exactly so.