Sacked S4C chief executive hired a lobbyist and changed the narrative of her dismissal, says outgoing chair Rhodri Williams of
Sacked S4C chief executive Sian Doyle hired a lobbyist who used to work for the Welsh Conservatives to change the narrative of her dismissal away from the bullying of staff to one where she was portrayed as the victim, according to the broadcaster’s outgoing chair Rhodri Williams.
Ms Doyle was dismissed in November following delivery of a report by Cardiff law firm Capital Law into allegations made by the trade union Bectu about the culture of fear and intimidation she created at S4C after she took charge in 2022.
But when the crisis at the broadcaster was examined by members of the House of Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee, MPs barely mentioned the horrific bullying outlined in the report but concentrated on what Mr Williams described as “minor issues of process”.
After he appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Senedd’s Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Affairs Committee, members of both bodies wrote to UK Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer calling on her not to re-appoint Mr Williams as chair when his term of office ends in March. He has since announced that he will not be seeking a second term.
Speaking exclusively to Nation.Cymru, Mr Williams said he had decided it was best for him to go because politicians and significant parts of the media appeared to have accepted the narrative put forward by Ms Doyle.
This had been achieved, he said, by a lobbying campaign undertaken on Ms Doyle’s behalf by Anthony Pickles, the former chief of staff of the Welsh Conservatives at the Senedd.
Mr Pickles works for the leading London lobbying and PR company the Blakeney Group.
Mr Williams said: “I think [the lobbying campaign] has clearly been very effective. The media coverage and the content of some of those stories.
“Here in Wales we’ve seen mention of Sian Doyle saying she ‘was undermined by the chairman of the board Rhodri Williams, who sacked her last Friday’.Not true. But yet these allegations are published. Again, it’s suggested that the report from Capital Law was commissioned by me, Untrue. But that has been very effective.
“I was slightly taken aback by the approach taken by the committee because as far as I’m concerned, what’s at the heart of this whole story is the behaviour of senior management within S4C towards their staff. The picture pained in the Capital Law report, even with it being heavily redacted with much of the detail removed in order to safeguard the anonymity of those who came forward and expressed a view, it’s very clear that there were serious failures in terms of the behaviours exhibited by senior management.
“Yet the committee at Westminster seemed to be uninterested in those and almost unwilling to listen – on occasions I wasn’t actually allowed to tell it as I saw it. Instead, the committee went after matters like how was Capital Law appointed and due procedures. These were lines I’d read in newspapers before the committee hearing, and they were being repeated.”
Mr Williams said he also found it “staggering” that it was suggested that the perpetrators of the bullying should have been given access to the report before the staff who were their victims, so that they would have the opportunity to “throw mud at it” before it was published.
“I don’t know Anthony Pickles at all. I’ve never met him. I do know that Blakeney, the PR company concerned, was employed by Sian Doyle when she was at S4C to help with communications issue, so there is a link there that I am aware of.
“I was informed after the Welsh Affairs Committee meeting by an MP who is not a member of the committee that Mr Pickles had been very busy in Westminster of late. I think it’s not surprising that the lobbying’s happened. We’ve seen it in the media.
“It is perhaps disappointing that MPs who you might expect to take a more critical view of these things and form their own judgement were so willing to follow the lead it was suggested to them that they should take.”
Much had also been made of a complaint against Mr Williams made by Llinos Griffin-Williams, the chief content officer of S4C who was later dismissed by Mr Williams for drunken behaviour in France during the Rugby World Cup. It was suggested that the chair should have had no part in taking disciplinary action against Ms Griffin-Williams, given the earlier event, which was inaccurately described as a bullying incident.
Mr Williams said: “The actual complaint upheld against me was that I behaved inappropriately at an S4C board meeting. [The ruling] specifically says that no allegations of bullying or threatening behaviour were upheld. It is simply that I had raised my voice, as one would hear the Speaker of the House of Commons do on occasion. From my perspective I regret that I raised my voice, but I hadn’t come across behaviour of that kind at any time as a chair of any organisation.
“Usually when a chair makes a request, you expect the role of the chair to be respected. The role of the chair on this occasion wasn’t respected. It was deliberately ignored and what was being said was not something that should have been discussed at that meeting. It was special category data that could only be shared within others with the express consent of the individual concerned and Llinos Griffin-Williams did not have the express consent of the individual concerned to be discussing that person’s health or the circumstances surrounding a serious health issue.
“On the first occasion I apologised to Llinos for having to cut across her. I said I didn’t think it was appropriate and would she please stop. That was completely ignored and she carried on. I asked a second time, again without raising my voice, and I think my frustration got the better of me the third time when I felt that I had to stop her from carrying on in the vein that she was – sharing this confidential information with people who shouldn’t be hearing it.
“That I think has coloured, if you like, the portrayal of this. What happened later in Nantes [where Ms Griffin-Williams engaged in a drunken rant, abusing members of a TV crew in two locations during the Rugby World Cup, resulting in her dismissal by Mr Williams for gross misconduct] was completely unrelated to that and to the Capital Law report.”
During the Senedd Culture Committee hearing Labour MS Alun Davies said that as an experienced manager, Mr Williams should have been aware of the toxic atmosphere in S4C before it was reported formally by Bectu. Mr Williams told us: “My first reaction was that it was a slightly naïve view as to what a chairman or indeed my fellow non-executive members of the board could learn about an organisation which has three geographical locations, in any one of which there would be people coming into the office two days a week and working from home for the rest of the time.
“There are eight board meetings in a year. The board would meet in one of those offices every time but committee meetings are held virtually and several meetings with the management team would be held virtually. So it’s a long way from my time at Ofcom, which was a larger organisation, where you could walk round the headquarters and I’d bump into Lord Curry, the chair when the organisation was created, and he’d come up and say how’s it going in Wales, Rhodri, I hear that Rhodri Morgan is doing this that or the other – and you could pick up on things. It’s very difficult to do that in the post-Covid era.
“The other thing, of course, is what is evidenced in the Capital Law report, where Sian Doyle’s dictatorial leadership style creating a culture of fear is talked about. There is direct evidence there of people saying they had heard her saying ‘Are you with me or not. It’s me or the chair.- you have to choose who you are loyal to – me or the chairman’.
“It’s very difficult to read the Capital Law report and think that members of staff would feel comfortable in approaching the chairman, who they might not know at all. And where would they do it – in an environment where they might be seen talking to me, when they’ve heard the chief executive saying they have to choose between being loyal to her or me? I really don’t accept that that’s a fair criticism.
“Interestingly we’ve had correspondence with Bectu since the report has been published and at no stage has it been suggested that the board has been at fault for not having realised at an earlier stage what was going on. To the contrary, Bectu’s view is that they came to us on April 28 2023 and we responded quickly, effectively and although it took a long time on account of the 92 people who decided to speak to Capital Law, we then took decisive action to deal with what the Capital Law report told us was the problem.”
“It’s very clear that it’s the chief executive’s responsibility – and I quote from the contract of employment – to ensure that S4C has a working environment where everyone treats each other with respect and where dignity and fairness are at the heart of all the company’s activities. The fact that didn’t happen isn’t my fault or the board’s fault. It isn’t DCMS’s fault. That is the responsibility fairly and squarely of the chief executive.
“The report says that the findings of the investigation summarised in the Capital Law report showed that the chief executive had substantially failed to meet the expectations placed upon her and the duty of care she owed to all S4C staff.”
Mr Williams will leave S4C at the end of March.
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