The Times

September 5 1999

Joffe: rearguard action Gamble: sexism charge

Man against woman in think-tank tussle

John Harlow and Stephen Bevan
The Sunday Times

WHISPERS, whines and, finally, writs. All the classic signs of a once-great imperial institution in the throes of reform have engulfed Chatham House, home of Britain's most prestigious think tank.

Grand plans to modernise the Royal Institute for Foreign Affairs, which has discreetly shaped government policies since the first world war, will be pushed aside tomorrow as its high-powered board meets to tackle its most pressing headache: how to negotiate a peace treaty between its senior executives.

The problem is far more intractable than most of the civil wars and coup d'etats the institute has helped to resolve since it was founded "to encourage peaceful co-operation" in 1920. In a shock to its liberal sensibilities, Chatham House has been accused of sexual discrimination.

The board meeting in the elegant 18th-century mansion in central London, which was home to three prime ministers, is set to be the climax of an eight-month confrontation between traditionalists and Dr Christine Gamble, who was recruited from the British Council last winter to overhaul the floundering institution.

The board will discuss charges from Gamble's nominal deputy, Dr George Joffe, director of studies, who was officially "let go" by the chief executive in June.

Last month, amid great secrecy and while still serving his notice at his desk at Chatham House, Joffe began a legal action claiming that he was a victim of sexual discrimination by Gamble.

Joffe has refused to comment upon his grievances, but The Sunday Times has learnt the background to the claim that, if taken to court, could cause massive embarrassment to Chatham House and its friends in the Establishment.

The prospective claim said that Joffe, a specialist in north African politics, was the only man on a three-person interviewing panel that appointed Dr Judy Smith, another academic, to a job in Chatham House without seeking approval from Gamble. The chief executive disapproved but, according to the claim, only Joffe was censured.

"George was picked out because Chris assumed that, because he was a man, he dominated the panel. That was not true but it was the last in a long line of strange management decisions made against him apparently because he was a man. Any time a woman did the same thing, she got away with it," said a supporter.

The claim comes after whispering campaigns from all corners about the future of the institute. Two tearful staff threatened to quit when it was rumoured, incorrectly, that their department faced the axe, and one bespectacled academic threw an ungainly punch at another, who accused him of "sneaking" to management.

Joffe has been running a rearguard action against Gamble's policies since she arrived. She tried to save money by closing down parts of Chatham House's 200- year-old library, and he circulated a paper among its 1,000 members to preserve it.

Yet few deny that Chatham House needs an overhaul. Its heyday probably came in 1927, when it devised the Chatham House Rules allowing diplomats to talk to each other "off the record". Its intellectuals sponsored many rising stars, including the young Mikhail Gorbachev, and prepared the way for the Israeli-Arab peace talks, but recently it has lost some of its lustre.

As the information age makes even political wisdom market-oriented and competitive, it has been overtaken by more "media-savvy" think tanks such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Since Kosovo, this has won a large share of the grants and scholarships that a decade ago would have gone to Chatham House.

The board, and its prospective new chairman Lord Marshall, who also runs British Airways and the CBI, are caught between two forces. One member said: "It's between those who love their lunchtime lectures, rarely attended by anyone under 50, and who want to keep it as a nice wine bar, and those who want to ride it into government circles. Chris Gamble, who is in the latter camp, has been branded a yuppie - an insult which shows how out of touch her detractors are."

Another member said Gamble showed questionable judgment by tangling with Joffe, who was to retire next February anyway, but said she was facing the same prejudices that had brought down other women trying to reform such institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Barbican in London. "Each woman tried to turn around a massive old-fashioned monolith and each was chewed up," he said.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.