My case against Al Jazeera
I was accused of being a threat to national security.
I remember speaking to a friend of mine recently about his acrimonious divorce case.
Suffering from mental exhaustion and in the depths of despair, he blamed his increasingly litigious and bitter wife who had been unceremoniously dumped for a younger woman.
“It’s got nothing to do with the money, you know. It’s all about revenge, justice and pride,” I advised.
And that pretty much sums up my case for unfair dismissal with Aljazeera English which has been dragged through every court in the land of Qatar.
I had been dumped by my boss – sacked unceremoniously on the marble doorstep of my posh villa, 10.30 at night, and he didn’t even have the guts to do it himself.
Without warning his PA informed me: “You’ve been terminated. Do not come to the office”.
It was a cowardly way to dispense of someone’s services – I was a senior editor, a team leader, brought in to help launch the English language website.
It hurt. It really hurt.
The pain has dulled now and, four years down the line, I finally received justice.
The funny thing is, I can’t even remember the name of my Qatari boss.
But I do recall a couple of explosive meetings we had. The White House demanded he pulled some features which exposed heavy handed tactics by US military against children in Afghanistan and Iraq.
No one disputed the accuracy of the stories but they offended the Bush Administration. Such a request would have been met with derision in Fleet Street but he capitulated.
The second clash happened when I discovered Arab and Asian colleagues were being paid considerably less than their Western counterparts.
This prompted me to try and introduce the NUJ to Qatar. I was accused of being a threat to national security.
Despite my sudden dismissal I could not leave until Aljazeera’s burgeoning administration department returned my passport. (Everyone has to hand in their passport on arrival).
For five weeks I was trapped in Qatar until lawyer Imran Khan of Stephen Lawrence fame intervened.
It was Christmas Eve. To this day I don’t know what he said but the passport arrived via motorbike courier within an hour.
By Boxing Day I flew back to the UK feeling rejected and humiliated.
Now, looking back without anger, I realise - like King Pyrrus of Epirus - there is a very fine line between victory and defeat.
In many ways a pyrrhic victory is just another kind of loss. Even if you wipe out your enemy, but suffer too many casualties or waste too much time, then you've also lost.
Perhaps the 8408.08 miles distance between me and the tiny Gulf state jutting out of Saudi’s gut saved me.
I didn’t have the time or the money to hassle my legal team over the glacial progress of the case.
My own impecunious state also forced me to concentrate on finding work.
But, there are three things to remember if you are contemplating suing overseas for unfair dismissal – you need bags of money, bags of patience and a bloody good lawyer.
Luckily for me I had the moral and financial support of the National Union of Journalists, although the latter was limited to 10k.
However, I had also secured the services of the finest employment lawyer in Qatar – Gebran Majdalany.
Gebran, an extraordinary Lebanese-born brief in his 70s, represented my first major victory because Aljazeera had tried to poach him.
The second victory followed shortly when I won my case by default – the other side didn’t bother to turn up.
However my victory jig was short-lived as an appeal was lodged immediately. It soon became obvious Aljazeera had the time, money and energy to drag things out. It also seemed as though they were filibustering by examining every single legal detail.
In 2006 I had to fly into Doha and give evidence in person via a translator.
As the 10k dwindled I gave myself an ultimatum: ‘Do I walk away or do I dig into my savings and continue to fight?’
The answer was easy - I had no savings.
However, I had a rare breed of lawyer who had a burning desire to win.
The money was no longer important – which was just as well since the performance of the Qatari Riyal was tied to the plummeting US dollar.
My 100,000 QR award (which doubled somewhere during the appeals procedure) is barely worth £12,000. When litigation began it was worth closer to 20k.
Despite my experience, I’m still an admirer of the Aljazeera name and the heroic brand of journalism it brought to the Arab world.
Nor have I been put off working for an overseas employer, but on reflection, I am probably more sensitive and respectful now to cultural differences and work practices.
I work for the Iranian-funded Press TV which launched in July 2007. The contract I have is a freelance one - which suits us both.
However, judging from internet chatrooms, I gather there are Western journalists who are really disillusioned working for Aljazeera English and may even be contemplating taking legal action.
My advice would be to proceed with extreme caution while drawing their attention to the words of China’s most famous philosopher Confucius: “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”