You can see Kevin Spacey reprising his performance as legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic Theatre at the moment. We also recently had the chilling, thrilling musical The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick (itself now unjustly replaced by Let It Be), which told the true story of nine young black men falsely accused of murder in 1930s Alabama.
Those theatrical versions of real-life stories cast long shadows about injustice, and the Scottsboro Boys only recently got a long overdue pardon more than 80 years later in 2013.
But over the last 15 months, I’ve been absorbed, both professionally and personally, in following a more immediate case of injustice, regarding my friend and former colleague Terri Paddock, summarily dismissed in December 2013 from the company she had co-founded and we had worked on together for a number of years, after the site had been acquired by new owners Theatermania almost exactly a year earlier. (Shares were owed to Terri on the anniversary date, but never received following her dismissal).
I should stress that Terri and I have, over the years, had our differences — mainly after I left whatsonstage.com to pursue an interest in a rival website that had newly set up shop in London.
But these things happen in life and in business, and given how small the London journalistic community that reports on theatre is, we had patched these differences up (whatsonstage.com, by the way, had emerged the victor in the battle of the rival websites in the end; broadway.com, who came to London to set up theatre.com, folded it around a year later).
Then in November 2013 I was hit with a bombshell when I was summarily and suddenly dismissed, after over 11 years service, from the Sunday Express, following an allegation that the appearance of some naked photographs of me — taken some 15 years earlier — had suddenly surfaced, or at least been brought to the editor’s attention, and were deemed to have had the potential to bring the company into disrepute (even though it was a widely known fact that the parent company of the paper was known for its own trading in pornography).
Less than three weeks later, Terri found herself unexpectedly being given her own marching orders — and was escorted from the building — following events that were alleged to have taken place at the annual public launch of the Whatsonstage’s annual awards, and then the private office Christmas party.
Both Terri and I separately launched cases for unfair dismissal against our now former employers, and as we both faced these events together, we bonded in an unexpected way, suppporting each other through long and arduous months of filing and fighting our claims. Mine came before the tribunal a few weeks ahead of hers, in August 2014, and she came to support me in the tribunal one day (filing this excellent report of what she’d witnessed)
A few weeks later, in mid-September, Terri had her own day(s) in court – though hers were in Holborn, not dismal West Croydon — and I attended several days of the hearing for myself. It was partly about supporting Terri through a process I knew from personal experience was gruelling — but also turned out to be the best offsite theatre I’d seen all year.
To watch the whatsonstage.com case against Terri serially collapse was both spectacularly embarrassing (for Whatsonstage and its CEO Gretchen Shugart, CFO Joe Yurcik and board member Mr Lee Simonson, all of whom had flown to London from New York specially to give evidence) and validating (for Terri and the hell she’d been put through).
Terri, like me, was fired on the grounds of bringing the company into disrepute, the main charge for which revolved around an event at the private office Christmas party, held at Brown’s restaurant in St Martin’s Lane, when Terri was alleged to have reached across the dining table, “touching with her right hand the outer clothing covering the left breast of Ms Laura Norman, an employee of the company and more junior than the claimant”, in the words of the tribunal judgement.
Shugart entirely relied on hearsay around this — she was sitting right beside Terri, but didn’t witness it herself (she also told the tribunal she’s “legally blind and can’t see out of my right eye”), but hearsay, it turned out, wasn’t necessary for the court to find out what happened. Terri had secured CCTV footage from Brown’s restaurant of the whole lunch — and it proved that the event was rather different, in both length and sequence, to the one that Whatsonstage were relying on to trigger a summary dismissal.
Firstly, as Terri testified, it was part of a long-standing joke between she and Norman, and indeed was initiated by the latter (who never filed a complaint against Paddock at all before her dismissal, and was not summonsed as a witness by Whatsonstage at any stage). As the tribunal judge noted, “If Laura Norman had jiggled her breast and it was a continuing of a joke between them, it might indicate that Laura had started the joke off on that occasion.”
The respondent’s lawyer interrogated Terri extensively on the the matter, and asked her directly, “Do you think that you should have touched her?” Terri replied, “I can only refer you to watch the CCTV. It was light hearted banter with someone. I find it offensive that someone who I cared about and worked with for so long, that I should be accused of harassing her.”
At which point the judge intervened to ask the respondent’s lawyer, “You are pursuing this evidence that, contrary to what the witness says, it was an inappropriate thing to do, There was no complaint from Ms Norman and on the CCTV footage it looks as though Ms Norman has seen the claimant coming over and presented her chest? You are still saying that banter in a clearly convivial meal – that is something someone can lose her job over?”
And despite Shugart and Yurick’s repeated insistence that the event lasted 30 seconds, the CCTV footage proves that it occurred across barely a second. Shugart also insisted in the tribunal that this was a form of sexual touching, because it involved the touching of what she defined as ‘the genitals’ of another woman. As Terri’s lawyer gently reminded her, “breasts are secondary sexual characteristics.”
Yet Shugart told the court, “I thought it was totally inappropriate and the touching and the conversation in a public place by the head of the company. The employer needs to be very careful with the employee. The employee is not in the position to say that they don’t like that.”
As the tribunal judgement notes, “It is clear from the video that Ms Norman was a willing participant in conversation that appeared to centre on breasts, first, with her cupping her own breasts and moving them — presumably thereby giving a demonstration of how she could “jiggle” her breasts — and then with her moving her upper body towards the advancing Claimant the better so that the Claimant could touch her breast.”
The tribunal judgement also notes of another witness put forward by Whatsonstage, Leila Fiaz, who was also present at the lunch where the event took place, “We were singularly unimpressed with the evidence of Ms Leila Faiz who asserted several times that one of the reasons she was giving evidence was so that she could be “a voice for my friend”, referring thereby to Ms Norman, and that her attendance at the Tribunal to give evidence represented her “giving people a voice if they don’t want to voice their concerns themselves”.
Yet, as the judgement notes, “when challenged as to why there was a discrepancy between her assertion the incident had caused Ms Norman to become upset and the absence of mention in her statement that such was the case, she claimed that detail was not her finest point in writing. We agree.”
Tom Teodorczuk, former arts reporter for the Evening Standard and now living in New York, puts it so succinctly I couldn’t improve on it: “It’s like something out of a badly-written David Mamet play circa 1987.”
But I also thought of another rather better written play as I heard the testimony and the serial accusations being made against Terri: Mike Bartlett’s Bull about office place bullying. Terri was hounded over a period of many months; at one point a new chart of reporting structures for the business was unveiled to Terri in front of the rest of her staff for the first time, showing they no longer reported to her; on another, the staff were invited to offer confidential reports to Shugart on how they felt about Terri that she wasn’t to see.
There were other yet more extraordinary claims against Terri’s behaviour that were made, such as her alleged drunkenness at the Whatsonstage launch party. Terri produced several industry witnesses who were able to comprehensively dismiss this, but Shugart herself never bothered to investigate whether it was really true.
In her own testimony, she tried to confusingly suggest that there were different degrees of drunkeness and saying at one point, “I don’t think anybody was sloppy drunk.” The judge would later say, “Before we were asked to differentiate between slurring and sloppy drunk, now we’re asked to see the difference between sloppy drunk and sloppy drunk?” (Has anyone in the theatre ever lost their jobs over drinking at an after-show party? There’s a certain irony in the fact that one critic, who has been known to fall asleep on the job after drinking too much, has retained a job on the same site despite this).
Another hilarious accusation against Terri was that she used a designated unisex changing room at the Awards launch to actually change in. Imagine! Shugart again: “That may be where they were meant to change but I doubt seriously that anyone meant to take their clothes off.” Huh?
But if there was disagreement over what a changing room was, Shugart suggested that there was also a disagreement over the type of business they were running between herself and Terri. She told the court, “I know Terri has this view that we are in the theatre business. We are not We are a service provider to the theatre business; we are not a theatre company. This is a professional business. There is a lot a risk and our behaviour is watched. We’re not putting on a show.”
Yet I would respectfully suggest this an attempt to have their cake and eat it. A show is precisely what the company does put on, every February in their awards show. And far from being outside the theatre industry, it seeks to actively embed itself within it via sponsorship that it seeks from it.
I am delighted to say that Terri has won her case for unfair dismissal. As Daphne Romney QC at Cloisters Chambers who represented Terri commented,
The employer’s handling of the disciplinary process was botched from beginning to end. It did not investigate the employee’s version of events, it ignored the clear CCTV evidence disproving the allegation of ‘a very serious piece of sexual harassment’, it does not seem to have involved the alleged victim at all and the appeal was obviously biased.
The full tribunal judgement is available here: http://www.terripaddock.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Ruling_150306.pdf