Determination and religious inspiration are central to the remarkable story of Tinu Adeshile, Muslim convert and GC at the Islam Channel
Title: General counsel
Reporting to: CEO Mohamed Ali Harrath
T urnover: £4m
Legal capability: One
Estimated legal spend: £100,000
Main external law firms: Peninsula Employment Legal Services
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 particularly simple either, even though her sister had made the same move 10 years previously. 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. Its 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 organisation 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.”
“I decided I wanted to become a media lawyer when I was about 28,” says Adeshile. “I couldn’t afford to study full-time so I self-funded my CPE and started working part-time on Saturdays.
“I’m from a single-parent background with a council estate upbringing and we didn’t have the money to pay for a full-time course. It was pretty tough, but an interesting time.”
While working in marketing Adeshile began to think seriously about a career in law.
“I read an article on [former Harbottle & Lewis head of music] Ann Harrison, who was Robbie Williams’ lawyer, and it was inspiring,” she recalls. “I thought: ‘I could do that’. When I was a child I wanted to be a lawyer, but
I forgot that until I picked up an old diary.”
Adeshile was further prompted towards the entertainment industry by her own first-hand experiences. She had a brief spell as a singer-songwriter in the mid to late 1990s while she was at college and university.
“I didn’t do very well,” she chuckles. “I was doing a bit of soul and dance music. I had one record played on Radio 1 at about 2am.”
Towards the end of her CPE Adeshile landed a paralegal job at Calvert Solicitors and in 2003 enrolled on a part-time LPC at the University of Westminster, becoming a trainee solicitor in 2005. She qualified in 2007.
“It was pretty intense – you don’t really have a life,” admits Adeshile. “But I was determined to be a lawyer to see that people were treated fairly, such as the young musicians who would later walk through my door at Calvert.”
Her chance with Calvert came through a friend knowing Dan Whittington, then a media lawyer at the firm and now director of business and legal affairs, Asia Pacific, at Discovery Networks International in Singapore. A week of work experience led to a permanent position and a seven-year stint under the guidance of principal and owner Nigel Calvert and senior partner Michael Hartley.
“I loved being able to use my brain, analyse and research,” says Adeshile. “I got client contact straight away and found they can be wonderful and challenging at the same time. It was a niche practice specialising in media law and commercial property. I was delving into areas such as music and publishing agreements, film projects, copyright infringements, defamation, acquisitions and even commercial property deals. I was learning so many skills.”
Adeshile prefers commercial work to adversarial instructions and believes that comes in part from her time at Calvert, getting a broad grounding on projects from start to finish. This background lends itself to in-house work too, she suggests.
So in February 2009 she joined Wall to Wall Media, producer of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, as legal and business affairs executive. Although it was an introduction into the “mad, hectic world of television”, and involved working with the BBC and Channel 4, the six-month stint ended with an abrupt, mutual parting of ways.
“It was a setback,” Adeshile accepts. “I had no choice but to go freelance – it was about survival. My career is so important to me and I wasn’t willing to give up like some lawyers did in the recession.”
Adeshile kept plugging away, with temporary stints as a freelance consultant, pro bono work and then as sole legal counsel at property, design and marketing company Yoo Ltd in 2010, then film distribution outfit Lionsgate UK in May 2011.
She worked on various movie projects for Lionsgate, which counts The Expendables and the gory Saw 3D among its credits.
“Some people were saying I should think about doing something else, but I carried on looking and working. My story isn’t the usual one. I didn’t have amazing contacts – I just had to deal with whatever came my way.”
Religion and the law: Sarah Hayes, Anthony Collins Solicitors
Legal services focusing on religion and the law form a core part of the ethos at Midlands firm Anthony Collins Solicitors. The firm was established around 40 years ago by licensing lawyer and Christian Anthony Collins, who wanted to fuse his professional life and his faith to serve the needs of religious organisations.
The firm now acts for a wide range of primarily Christian churches and organisations, led by Sarah Hayes in the faith communities team.
Hayes is a consultant at the firm and also ordained as an Anglican priest. Like Adeshile, she insists belief is not essential to her role, although she says understanding the particular demands of faith is beneficial for her clients.
“The key for our clients is sustainability with ethical alignment,” says Hayes, “They want to know how they can make an impact in their local community, but in a way that reflects their beliefs.”
Hayes helps draft constitutions for faith groups to accurately reflect their values, while co-existing with statutes such as the Equality Act 2010.
The debate about religion and the law was intensified recently by the case of gay couple Michael Black and John Morgan when a B&B owner refused them a room on the basis of her religious views on homosexuality.
Although high-profile, advice on whether a gay rights organisation can use a church hall, for example, are rare instructions. The bulk of enquiries from its religious clients involves Anthony Collins Solicitors negotiating a balancing act between legal structures and faith.
Added to that conundrum, when working with Anglican churches, is the consideration of the Church of England’s own legislative statutes – known as ‘Measures’ and approved by Parliament – that have the same force as Acts of Parliament and affect issues such as the use of churches, procedures for closing them and the partnerships churches form with statutory bodies.
“There’s work for lawyers around building development and how faith-based organisations engage with communities,” says Hayes. “There’s also a gradual acclimatisation to the changing relationship between church and clergy, which is moving more into line with the employer-employee framework rather than clergy being seen as self-employed or employed directly by God.”
Hayes says there is also some interesting work coming in from the crossover area of faith and finance, with the firm providing legal advice on setting up social investment schemes to address the problem of poverty, rather than simply donating money to charities,
One of the skills of working in the field of religion involves negotiating cultural issues that can differ from client to client, says Hayes.
Remaining distinct is one such consideration, enshrining an organisation’s expression of faith within a legal structure.
“The Church of England has huge, fantastic assets visible in many high streets,” she says. “They cost a lot of money to maintain, and congregations are often small and not wealthy. In some cases there are few physical assets available for community use. So to retain them there needs to be creative use of the buildings and effective engagement with surrounding communities. But there are lots of rules around the use and development of consecrated ground and worship space – this is where we come in.”