How Joanna Lumley helped win the media war for the Gurkhas

Joanna Lumley’s support of the Gurkha Justice Campaign was a crucial element of its success. PRmoment talks to councillor Peter Carroll who has worked on the campaign since 2003.

When Peter Carroll was a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Folkestone in 2003, he came to the attention of Gurkha soldiers, as many Gurkha families live in this area. One Sunday, four Gurkhas came to visit Carroll, to explain the full details of their plight, Carroll says: “I was shocked to hear that all retired Gurkhas were being sent back to Nepal, and that one of their colleagues, called Tej Limbu, was at that moment in Dover awaiting to be deported (I found out later he was eventually forcibly deported after 13 years serving in the army).” From that moment on, Carroll began working for the cause, starting with a call to the BBC main switchboard. Within a couple of days, Carroll, accompanied by two Gurkhas, was attracting nationwide attention on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. Before going on the show, he got in touch with the Daily Express, and thus began the press campaign which led to it making front-page news four times in the coming weeks. Carroll also approached his local regional TV station, Meridian, and BBC South East Today as well as local radio station KMFM.

Party conference support

Over the next year, Carroll’s campaign included accompanying Gurkhas to picket Liverpool immigration offices and persuading the then leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Charles Kennedy, to raise the issue at the 2004 Party Conference. Later in 2004, Tony Blair announced that Gurkhas who retired after 1997 would be allowed to stay in the UK, which made Carroll and his fellow campaigners determined to fight for all other war veterans at risk of deportation, and those who had already been sent away. The campaign included marches and four petitions to Downing Street.

The Lumley factor

In 2006, the law firm Howe & Co started to fight Gurkha cases and joined forces with Carroll on demonstrations. September 2008 was a key time, as this was when the solicitors went to the High Court to fight to change the 1997 cut-off date. Just before this, Carroll was petitioning in the streets of Cranbrook in Kent, when he says: “a lady took my arm and said that I needed to get someone famous involved. She said ’you should contact Joanna Lumley’.” Knowing that Lumley had always been supportive of Gurkhas, and had already done lots of work for their cause, Carroll decided to act on the advice. He continues: “That night I went on the Internet and sent off loads of emails to agents. Three weeks later I was driving down the A1, when I find there is a message on my answer phone, saying “hello this is Joanna, I would like to help you.” As the three messages before this has been about such important local issues as blocked drains, Carroll thought the message could be another local constituent, but of course hoped that this was Lumley. He called back and spoke to Lumley who was instantly supportive. Carroll asked her to come to the High Court and that was when media interest went “stratospheric”. Carroll says: “Straight away the BBC phoned Lumley and that morning she was on the BBC‘s Morning programme. I first met her at 6.30am at the studios, before she made her first appearance with Gurkha soldier Madan, who was one of our best PR assets, he made a great team with Joanna.”

Petitioning, petitioning, petitioning

On 30 September the High Court ruled that the 1997 exemption date was unlawful, but the Judge did not have the power to legislate for the return of all Gurkhas who had been already deported. On the steps of the High Court, Lumley stood behind a banner giving the website address for Gurkha Justice and she said that everyone should log on to petition. Carroll explains that there was little time to get this site up and running and that, “we wrote that website in 25 minutes”. Lumley’s plea generated massive interest and 150,000 people signed the online petition, and a further 150,000 printed off the petition and posted it. Carroll says: “My house was like a Royal Mail sorting office.”

On 20 November 2009, 4,000 people gathered at Parliament Square to march with the petition to Downing Street. Despite this, there was no formal reaction from the government, apart from government lawyers asking for more time to sort out legislation. On 24 April 2009, the government announced new rules that stated Gurkhas could return, but only if they met extremely stringent criteria, including having served over 20 years and having won a medal. Carroll says that Lumley was furious and the campaign gathered greater momentum, determined to win a fair deal for all those that had fought for Great Britain.

A ray of light

Although campaigners had written three times to the Prime Minister’s office requesting a meeting, they only got one acknowledgement. But when Lumley rang Downing Street in early May and asked to speak to Gordon Brown, by 2.30pm that same day she had her meeting. Despite this seeming breakthrough, a few days after this, five Gurkhas had their applications rejected to stay in this country. Such shocking news galvanised Carroll into immediate action, and he says, “we put together the fastest ever press conference, and by 4pm the press were gathered in Millbank.” Carroll was always impressed by Lumley’s passion and was not surprised when she “barbecued” the immigration minister.

All the hard work paid off on 21 May, when the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, announced that all Gurkha veterans were entitled to stay in Great Britain. Carroll says they he had heard the good news before the official announcement, at a meeting the evening before with the immigration minister Phil Woolas, where Lumley laid on a celebratory feast of chips and champagne.

Key PR moments:

2003

- Parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrat party in Folkestone, Peter Carroll, becomes involved in the campaign

- Media coverage includes interviews on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show, in the Daily Express, and on local TV and radio

2004

- Campaign pickets Liverpool immigration offices

- Charles Kennedy raises the issue at the 2004 Liberal Democrat Party Conference

- Tony Blair announces that Gurkhas who retired after 1997 are allowed to stay in the UK if they have done four years of service

2006

- Human rights law firm Howe & Co, that represents Gurkhas, joins forces with the campaign

2008

September - Joanna Lumley appears on BBC Breakfast

September - High Court rules that the 1997 exemption is unlawful and must be updated

2009

24 April - New rules are announced, but these only apply to very few Ghurkas

29 April - Labour rebels help force a House of Commons Defeat, so that immigration minister Phil Woolas promises to review the legislation

7 May - Five more Gurkhas are barred from Britain

20 May - Prime minister Gordon Brown announces that Government will honour its commitment to Gurkhas

21 May - Home secretary Jacqui Smith tells MPs that all Gurkha veterans can settle in Britain

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