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June 20, 2014

‘It’s not a question of low morale, we’re angry’: Oldie staff member speaks out after Richard Ingrams departure

By William Turvill

The first full-time employee of The Oldie to resign in the wake of Richard Ingrams’ departure has spoken out about the “low morale” and “anger” within the office at the way he has been treated.

Deborah Asher, 60 next month, who has been the magazine’s sub-editor for seven years, handed in her resignation last Thursday, on the same day new editor Alexander Chancellor was introduced to staff by publisher James Pembroke.

Today is her last day in the office, and she will soon be followed by art director Joe Buckley, 34. 

Asher said she believed until recently that she would be working at The Oldie until retirement. She said staff departures are an indicator of the upset and anger in the office following the departure of Ingrams.

Ingrams has said publicly that tempers were strained between him and Pembroke over a £15,000 Arts Council grant for the Soho Literary Festival, which the magazine runs (an investigation has now been launched). But Asher said she had been told the relationship began to deteriorate at the end of 2012 when Ingrams suggested that staff should recieve Christmas bonuses and Pembroke disagreed.

“Richard’s a very moral person,” said Asher. “If he thinks something’s not right, something’s stingy about [the way] staff are being treated, he’s going to dig his heels in.

“And he might not do it in the most diplomatic, politically acute way, but he follows his conscience. And he felt strongly about the Christmas bonus, and… he felt strongly we should just have a little reward.

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“And he thought the Arts Council grant, once he got to the bottom of it, was preposterous. He was an awkward blighter about it, but was following his conscience.”

Matters came to head between Ingrams and Pembroke in May. After being summoned to a disciplinary hearing brought by Pembroke, Asher said Ingrams attempted to resolve issues between the pair by arranging a meeting, but at that meeting Pembroke insisted on the hearing going ahead. According to Asher, Ingrams, “and the type of man he was”, was left in a situation where he had no option but to hand in his resignation on 30 May.

“I was horrified, absolutely horrified,” Asher says, describing the moment Ingrams told her about his disciplinary hearing and showing her the documentation.

“I understand how employment law works and I could see quite clearly that this was a step in an attempt to try and get Richard out of his job.”

She added: “I don’t think that left Richard anywhere to go but to resign.”

After handing in his resignation on a Friday, Ingrams turned up to The Oldie’s Newman Street office, just off Oxford Street, the following Monday ready to work off his notice.

Asher said: “I think James was extremely surprised when he came in on the Monday in the middle of James’s… announcement, or speech to the staff about Richard.

“It was a very tense atmosphere. Understandably.”

Asher added: “Richard came in and sat down at his desk and said hello… and then there was a point at which… James has got this thing about having discussions on the landing. So he summoned Richard, he said: ‘I’d like to talk to you on the landing.’”

Asher said that Pembroke, who “has clearly been consulting with his lawyers every step of the way”, made a point of taking a colleague with him as a  “witness”.

Asher was not present, but believes Pembroke said to Ingrams he was causing “distress to staff”, which Asher said he was not. A riled Ingrams is said to have told Pembroke: “Fuck you.”

Asher said: “And why not? He was angry and he was provoked and why shouldn't he be allowed to come in during his last few days to say goodbye to his staff?"

Pembroke then went home for the day, and Ingrams remained.

The following day Pembroke came in to tell staff to work from home, according to Asher. When Ingrams travelled in from his Berkshire home, he found the door jammed and could not enter. Although Asher said the door was not intentionally locked – as Ingrams had believed – she said that if he had been able to get into the office he’d have been even more “upset”.

“Although Richard wasn’t locked out, to have turned up and seen no staff there was pretty hostile and horrible without any explanation," she said.

“If he’d been able to get in he’d have been just as upset. I think he would have been gutted to have walked in and found no body there with no explanation.”

The staff were told to work from home for the rest of the week, “which was very difficult”.

In The Mail on Sunday, Ingrams wrote that when Chancellor was introduced to the office, staff "sat in stony-faced silence like sulky children being introduced to a new stepfather". And Asher said this summed up the mood perfectly: "It was bizarre.”

Asher has reserved her judgment on Chancellor, who she has only worked with for four days. 

Will the magazine succeed under him? “I think it will be very different… whether it struggles or not depends on what the appetite is for that different.”

Describing the current atmosphere in the office, Asher said: “It’s not just a question of low morale, we’re angry and we’ve been very upset to read things like, you know, how much we’re all looking forward to the staff trip [to Bruges]… and all of that stuff that has come out in our name.”

And on Ingrams, who has described Asher is “irreplaceable” at The Oldie, she said: “I have to say, he’s got a bit of a carapace, but he’s the kindest, most supportive editor I could ever imagine.

“I made the most appalling howlers that any other editor would have shouted and screamed about… he laughed and laughed and said it didn’t matter a jot."

She added: “He is an old-fashioned man of his generation. He doesn’t really do emotion, doesn’t do lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, but he’s absolutely the most brilliant, kind editor I could possibly imagine.”

Press Gazette put Asher's account to Pembroke.

He said that Buckley had not resigned because of Ingrams' departure and that Asher had been aware of the bad relationship between him and Ingrams, who he accused of treating him in an "appalling" manner.

He said it was untrue that Ingrams had attempted to meet him after being summoned to a disciplinary hearing, which he said was not an attempt to oust Ingrams.

He denied wanting to "provoke" Ingrams in the meeting on the landing and he also denied telling staff to go home on the Tuesday after Ingrams' resignation, saying it was optional. He claimed that any "low morale" and "anger" within The Oldie office was because of Ingrams.

Pembroke said he had been consulting a lawyer since May.

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