Posted on February 7, 2011

How Referring to Gossip As ‘Jungle Drums’ Led to Six-Month Racism Probe

Luke Salkeld, Daily Mail (London), February 7, 2011

A health watchdog has had its funding withdrawn after its chairman was bizarrely accused of racism for using the phrase ‘jungle drums’ to describe gossip.

The innocuous remark at a public meeting was seized upon by an equality campaigner–and the ensuing race row has lasted six months at a cost to the taxpayer of tens of thousands of pounds.

The trouble began at a gathering of the Wiltshire Involvement Network (WIN), an independent health watchdog, in Potterne Wick, Devizes, when chairman Anna Farquhar, 70, noted that gossip about NHS changes had been spreading within the Health Service, remarking: ‘You cannot help the jungle drums.’

The term comes from the use of wooden drums which were traditionally used in parts of Africa to communicate messages over long distances.

But a member of the public in attendance at the meeting in the local Scout headquarters, Sonia Carr, declared the phrase to be racist. Mrs Farquhar immediately apologised for any offence but Mrs Carr, a member of the Wiltshire Racial Equality Council, was unsatisfied and submitted an official complaint to Wiltshire Council, which launched a costly investigation.

After producing a ten-page report, the council barred all members of WIN from council premises and meetings. It also withdrew funding to cover the group’s administration costs.

Fellow WIN members said they were ‘astounded’ that Mrs Farquhar, a distinguished former chief executive of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and St John Ambulance in the Devizes area, had been accused of racism.

‘Anna hasn’t got a racist bone in her body,’ said one. ‘The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s got to the point where you daren’t ask for a black coffee in case somebody takes offence.’

Phil Matthews, WIN’s vice-chairman and a member of the local Coalition Against Racism, said: ‘It’s the worst kind of political correctness. Anna’s remark was nothing to do with race. This ridiculous decision means that patients in this area do not have a voice and the council is not hearing their concerns about health and social care services.’

Mrs Carr, 50, who lives with her husband Owen, 54, in Warminster, Wiltshire, claimed Mrs Farquhar’s initial apology was inadequate and that watchdog members needed training on ‘equality and diversity issues’.

‘The remark was racist and my complaint is valid,’ she said yesterday. ‘People need to think before they say things that could cause offence.’

Today, the council is to meet WIN leaders to explain why it upheld Mrs Carr’s complaint about the incident on August 10 last year.

John Thomson, deputy leader of the Tory-run council, admitted that ‘it may be political correctness’ but insisted: ‘The law makes it clear that what matters is not the intention of the person who uses the phrase but whether anybody is offended by it.’

However John Glen, the Tory MP for Salisbury, said it was ‘ludicrous’, adding: ‘It is hugely frustrating, at a time when we are trying to save money, that the council is wasting large amounts of money. This kind of unnecessary action and bureaucracy drives the public crazy.’