5 December 2012 | By Sam Chadderton
Determination and religious inspiration are central to the remarkable story of Tinu Adeshile, Muslim convert and general counsel at the Islam Channel
The power of positive thinking has taken Tinu Adeshile from being a part-time law student funding her own qualifications to taking on the role of general counsel at broadcaster the Islam Channel. Perhaps more extraordinary, though, is the spiritual journey that saw her convert to Islam just two months after taking on the job in September 2011.
Until then Adeshile was a lapsed Catholic, having had the faith knocked out of her on the bumpy road to professional success. So was her decision to convert to the Muslim faith influenced by a need to fit in at Islam Channel?
“No,” insists Adeshile, “I thought when I applied that not following Islam would rule me out of the job. I was wondering if that was a factor [but] there are people from many backgrounds here. It’s a melting pot of what Islam is all about.
“The positive experience of working here was a big influence,” explains the 39-year-old South Londoner. “It was an influence on my conversion. I talked to the other Muslims here and they answered any questions I had.”
Many Islam Channel employees pray five times a day and Adeshile remarks on how comfortable this made her feel when she first walked into the company’s office on London’s Bonhill Street.
“I’m not saying that other places are more cut-throat, but working in-house and the inclusivity that is part of Islam made it a fantastic environment,” she enthuses. “I was raised a Catholic, but stopped looking into religion a while back, while still believing in something higher. I didn’t think I’d ever practise a religion again and if you told me I’d become a Muslim years ago I’d have said ‘no way’.”
From a long-term career perspective, converting was not an obvious move. “I’m happy where I am, but if I was ever to leave, turning up for a new job in a hijab might make things difficult,” admits Adeshile. “Let’s be realistic, there’s racism in the law. I’ve probably made things more difficult for my career path.”
In her private life the move was not simple either, even though her sister had made the same move 10 years before. Adeshile’s mother was reluctant to accept the decision, although she is now supportive, and her sister has been an invaluable source of information.
“I started talking to my sister more and it just felt right,” says Adeshile. “It’s difficult to describe it, but working in an Islamic environment with so much diversity helped me reach the decision.”
Adeshile’s Muslim sisters from Islam Channel attended her ‘Shahadah’ - the conversion ceremony whereby a declaration of faith is repeated in front of an Imam. She describes it as a “special moment”.
On the day we meet, the channel’s head of news Carl Arrindell is preparing to interview David Bermingham - one of the ‘NatWest Three’. The theme is terrorism and the relationship between the UK and US authorities, with the programme looking to challenge popular discourse on the sending of terror suspects - including Babar Ahmad - to the US for trial, something Arrindell suggests is less than balanced.
He compares the coverage of Ahmad with the publicity surrounding the Gary McKinnon case to highlight the need for Islam Channel’s alternative voice.
It is these sensitive and often live broadcasts that provide Adeshile with her raison d’être: providing the legal framework to enable Ofcom-approved programmes on incendiary topics, such as a film insulting Muslim prophet Muhammad.
The station does not cover Sharia law, but when negotiating commercial contracts Adeshile has to take into account the principles of Islamic finance, which forbid the charging of interest.
Islam Channel, an 80-employee, not-for-profit organisation, broadcasts globally free-to-air on Sky and other platforms. Founder and chief executive, Tunisia-born Mohamed Ali Harrath, has kept Adeshile and her predecessor sharp - until 2011 he was red-flagged by Interpol after falling out with the Tunisian regime, being imprisoned for activism and then fleeing into exile.
He set up Islam Channel in 2004, providing ‘alternative news, current affairs, and entertainment programming from an Islamic perspective’, according to its website.
Adeshile has responsibility for monitoring contentious broadcasts and regulatory issues while balancing the priorities of commercial interests, employment law, copyright disputes, contracts, satellite upload agreements and events.
Her tasks include overseeing the legal aspects of hosting a London event that attracts 70,000 people and sitting through live charity appeals at the peak appeal time of Ramadan.
Adeshile’s appetite for the law comes from five years’ working full-time to fund her CPE and LPC. She then got an opportunity to become a paralegal at small City practice Calvert Solicitors before becoming a qualified solicitor and joining Islam Channel in September 2011.
As for her ambitions, she can only see as far as doubling the legal department - to two. For the bigger projects, interns are essential.
“It’s a great role,” enthuses Adeshile. “I’m always busy and on my toes. I do a lot of compliance, looking at programmes against Ofcom regulations and examining service agreements. I ensure we’re not breaching anyone’s copyright or privacy, IP agreements or licences, or defaming anybody.
“Because it’s TV it’s very fast-paced. We have a sales department, a production company, a registered charity that raises money through the channel as we’re a not-for-profit organisation and a studio in Cleveland Street. I’m the lawyer for all of those areas.
“It’s an entrepreneurial environment, with people always coming up with ideas, and my interns and I will research to see if we’re allowed to try certain ideas in programmes. We’re trying to spread our wings and go into new territories.”
The channel promotes itself as having an Islamic perspective, with a ‘crucially prominent voice’ for Muslim communities, while also trying to appeal to non-Muslims.
There are contracts, agreements and licences with both Muslim and non-Muslim organisations, but how is the organisation perceived by its viewers?
Adeshile says there may be occasions when complaints against her employer are vexatious and stem from Islamophobia, but she feels such incidents simply motivate the team to continue to challenge the negative portrayal of Islam to change people’s perceptions.
Diversity under pressure
Changing the perception of law may be just as difficult a task.
Adeshile wants young people to know her story; she wants to be a role model for law students who can identify with a black female Muslim convert from a poor background - or even just recognise her drive and ambition to achieve her goals. But she is concerned about the prospects for the next generation.
“I don’t want to play the race card, but I do believe there’s racism within the legal profession,” she says. “I haven’t experienced any where I’ve worked, but I’m worried about the future for minorities, in terms of the law.
“With the recession hitting I think doors are closing for these types of trainees. I was really fortunate I could do my degree in sociology. There’s no way, coming from a relatively poor background, I’d be able to afford to go to university now, with the fees being so high.
“I despair of what’s going to
happen with these kids. I went to an event with the Law Society in Black History Month and there were a lot of talented students there who were unable to find work. You have to wonder if they’ll get the chance.
“I don’t believe in positive discrimination, just in whoever is good enough for the job, but it’s about giving people an opportunity. Even today I am surprised when I see a black or Asian person in a top position in the legal profession, and I shouldn’t be in 2012.”
Adeshile has an alternative take on the changing legal landscape, with the onset of the Legal Services Act and big brands such as the Co-operative offering legal services.
“High street firms would usually give some of these students a chance, but if you’ve got a Tesco or Co-op in town those family businesses won’t last,” she says, adding: “However, I don’t think they should give up, these trainees and students. I’ve been blessed, but it has taken determination too. I’d like to show other people that it’s possible to do whatever you want to do.”
She has just become joint vice-chair of the Plumstead Law Centre and one of her main tasks will be fundraising just to help the organisation keep its head above water.
Like her idol, boxer Muhammad Ali, Adeshile is not afraid to speak her mind on issues close to her heart and she uses a quote of his to sum up her attitude to her profession: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
1996-99: BSc Sociology and Social Policy & administration, Surrey University
2000-03: Part-time GDL, Wolverhampton University
2002: Paralegal, Calvert Solicitors
2003-05: Part-time LPC, Westminster University
2005: Trainee solicitor, Calvert Solicitors
2009: In-house legal and business affairs executive, Wall to Wall Media
2010: Pro bono solicitor, Plumstead Law Centre
2011: General counsel, Islam Channel