UK: Media Interest In Employment Disputes

Last Updated: 24 February 2009
Article by Richard Elsen

Almost every day there seems to be yet another high profile employment case in the newspapers. Why is this? Well, firstly there are more cases going through the Employment Tribunals (ETs), where an increase of 15% was recorded in the most recent figures published. Given the economic climate it can only be expected that the number will rise again in 2009.

Generally speaking, employment disputes attract media coverage because they have a very strong human element which is attractive to Editors, who understand what their readers are interested in and relate to. Typically, the claimant will be portrayed by the media as something of a David battling a corporate Goliath and taking on deeply entrenched vested interests.

The media will usually focus on alleged wrong doings by the employer, how the employee claims to have been treated, the perceived culture of the workplace, allegations of extreme bad behaviour such as drug abuse and, of course, whatever sum they decide to report as being claimed money-wise.

Allegations of sexual misconduct would also feature in these stories, were it not for ET rules and the issuance of Restricted Reporting Orders (RROs) in such cases. If the defendant in question is a household name, such as a bank, a FTSE 100 company or a celebrity, then you can expect media interest to intensify dramatically.

Even a cursory news search will reveal numerous examples of how the media feed off employment disputes. Mona Awad, a Muslim bank manager who claims she was accused of trying to sleep her way to the top is suing Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) for damages of Ł16.7m for sex, race and religious discrimination. This was widely reported in the national newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet. The case is being dealt with by Nottingham Employment Tribunal.

Meanwhile, Heather Mills' former nanny is taking her to a tribunal alleging sex discrimination and intimidation. Sara Trumble has lodged a constructive dismissal claim with the Employment Tribunal in Ashford, Kent, following her resignation in September 2008.

The latest employment case to make the newspapers is against the BBC. Tessa Dunlop, who appeared in the BBC's History Hunters, alongside Bill Oddie, claims that she was sacked after the birth of her first child. She accuses the BBC of sexual discrimination and has filed a claim with the Central London Employment Tribunal.

So here we are in February 2009 and already a number of high profile cases are making headline news.

Effective media handling assumes greater importance when the reputational, and financial, stakes are high. From a claimant standpoint the media can be a powerful tool and is used as a means of applying pressure on 'the other side' to encourage settlement talks.

Claimants are often very good at briefing journalists. Their PR representatives understand the importance of getting the news out first and the difficulties defendants have when a story breaks – turning bad news around can be something of a Herculean task, and is also a distraction at a time when the client is highly vulnerable.

But it is not always plain sailing for claimants when it comes to how the media report employment cases. There is certainly a groundswell of negative opinion in certain sections of the press against claimants who bring high value cases, particularly in relation to the Square Mile.

A significant number of business journalists now take the view that there have been too many city cases which either seek what are perceived to be excessive amounts, or involve allegations that seem too outrageous. Some of this is down to the fact that normally publicity shy organisations such as banks increasingly now choose to fight such cases, whereas in the past they might have been expected to settle early, with strict non-disclosure clauses in place. High value cases brought by women alleging sexual discrimination seem to particularly attract criticism from sections of the media.

Whether claimant or defendant, there are a number of important factors that need to be taken into account before approaching or responding to the media:

  • Have you assessed the media risk? Frequently, inadequate risk planning can lead to problems, as factors that have not been identified as potentially difficult come to the fore, often because of briefings by 'the other side'.
  • Do you have a good understanding of the likely stance of the newspapers in question – for example The Guardian and the Daily Mail will generally adopt different attitudes about a case.
  • Are you thinking about an exclusive? Not always a great idea and can often backfire, merely serving to create a difficult media atmosphere as the case progresses.
  • Knowing a few journalists doesn't mean everything will be OK. A common mistake is to think that two or three journalist contacts will suffice, when in fact it won't. Depending on the details of the case and those involved, you often will be dealing with a large number of journalists, each needing to be managed properly.
  • Remember, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. Once you go public you can't change your mind. Pick your moment wisely and ensure that you are fully prepared to engage with the media – both friendly and hostile.

Going through Tribunal is always a trying experience, regardless of whether you are claimant or defendant. The stresses of evidence giving and the legal process, coupled with the unusual atmosphere within Tribunal buildings, can leave clients feeling somewhat insecure and vulnerable. Add to this a hostile media and it is easy to see why, increasingly, solicitors advise their clients to consider bringing on board PR professionals.

Claimants and defendants who are tempted to engage with the media in the hope that they might gain some kind of advantage would do well to heed the following quotation before embarking upon such a course:

"Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws." Douglas Adams, Author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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