Friday, 18 December 2015

Unison General Secretary Election - more dodgy shenanigans?

I was forwarded an email concerning the investigation into the investigation into the Unison Election last night. I find the contents of this highly disturbing. This has been circulated amongst Unison officials.


From: "Westwood, Karen"
Date: 17 December 2015 at 15:49:20 GMT
To: "Westwood, Karen"

Dear colleagues, please see email below from the Presidential Team and Trustees which I wanted to make you aware of.

May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

With best wishes Yvonne

From: Walker, Joan
Sent: 17 December 2015 12:09
Importance: High

TO:    NEC

Dear Colleague

As you know a number of serious allegations have been made against our union in London.

The complaints are being investigated.

Whilst it is not our practice to comment on an ongoing investigation on this occasion we believe there is one aspect that warrants public disclosure.  This can be done without compromising the rights of those involved in this matter.

The complaint presented by Jon Rogers relies heavily on an anonymous recording.  Given the seriousness of this tape the union commissioned an independent forensic report of the recording.  The Presidential Team and the Trustees of the union now have the full report from the Audio Forensic Service.

The forensic analysis was undertaken by an accredited audio specialist and the company is used by the High Court for audio evidence.

The report clearly states that “the probability of tampering is exceptionally high”.  On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), the Independent Expert rates the tape as a 5/5.

The results have been passed to the Investigating Officer and the ERS and as the Presidential Team and Trustees we are also asking for a formal investigation of the providence of the recording.

Please share as appropriate.


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Now to the untrained eye this sounds like a very damning piece of evidence. I do however have to put on my hat as an audio engineer who owns a recording studio and ask a few questions. These are very simple to answer.  I have been asked on occasion to analyse recordings for such purposes. The first is to ask what they mean by "tampering". The implication from the email is that the recording cannot be trusted as it has been "tampered with". What is odd is that despite being able to circlate to Unison officials a claim that the recording has been tampered with, the nature of this "tampering" is not specified.

So what could tampering mean, in the context of an audio tape? Here are the main types of thing I would look for when asked to review a recording. The first two in effect are fraudulent. The third is quite the opposite. It is simply ensuring the key sections can be heard.

1.  Editing. This is where a recording has key sections removed or cut up and  put back together. For instance take the phrase "I am not convinced that Henry is a good boy". It would be fairly easy to remove the word "not" and the whole context of the phrase is changed. Theoretically it is possible to cut a speech up into constituent words and put back together in a completely different order take "Last night I went to see MY MOTHER. She has an infestation of japanese knotweed, which IS AN ALIEN invasive species. Her whole garden is being destroyed ERADICATING it. SHE IS so fed up she is SET ON going to EASTBOURNE for christmas" becomes "MY MOTHER IS AN ALIEN, SHE IS SET ON ERADICATING EASTBOURNE". As you can see, potentially this can make a quite mundane conversation into something completely different.  I haven't analysed the recording on , but if the allegation is that the tape has been edited, this is very easy to demonstrate. As the meeting was public, you can use the background noise as a reference and you can easily identify exactly where the edits have taken place. I would expect a forensic company to say "there is a high probability that the tape has been EDITED (not tampered with). If someone was to ask me whether this was a feasable way of stitching someone up, I would say categorically no and I would advise against it, as it is very easy to spot. It is worth noting that there are two types of edits. One is a malicious edit, which changes the context of the recording. The other is what is called a cosmetic edit. A cosmetic edit is one where a section of a recording is removed in a way which does not change the context. In this case a section of a recording is removed as it is not relevant to the topic and its removal does not change the context of what is being said. For instance TV news is a whole series of edits. No one claims this is not trustworthy.It appears that there is a cosmetic edit at 2:52 into the audio file, where there is a break in audio of around five seconds. If this is the reason that the forensic analysis has deemed the recording "tampered with", then I would say that this is a very misleading statement. This is quite clearly a cosmetic edit.

2. Overdubs. Again this is another way in which a dodgy or unscrupulous person could make a tape seem to be something which it is not. You simply need to get someone who is a good mimic to say what you want and splice it into the recording. In this circumstance, it would be fairly easy to spot. In a public meeting, the background noise, the natural reverberation/ echo of the room and exact speech patterns of the person could be identified. Although it is easy to trick a human ear that you sound like someone else, there is fairly standard software which you can use which would identify the imitator. The pitch and tempo of the speech is impossible to match exactly. You would also see a general raising of the sound level.  If someone was to ask me whether this was a feasable way of stitching someone up, I would say categorically no and I would advise against it, as it is very easy to spot.

3. Audio enhancement. This is something our company does all the time (at this point I must state that I/my company have had no involvement at all with the Unison audio recording in question). Just about every video the Barnet Eye has ever posted of Barnet Town Hall has audio enhancement. When recording public meetings, it is often impossible to hear exactly what is being said. I spend hours fiddling with the sound levels in the studio. This isn't changing anything, it is simply removing background noise, using various noise filters etc. The recording is still a true representation of the meeting, it simply means that the speaker can be heard. If, as I suspect, the "tampering with" is simply audio enhancement, this in no way casts into doubt the veracity of the tape.

For the Unison officials claims to be taken seriously, they need to publish the full report, stating exactly why they have concluded that the the recording has been "tampered with". If they are alleging editing or overdubs, then the report will quite clearly show graphic representations of sound waves and background levels abruptly changing and key sound signatures that demonstrate tampering. All of this is very easy to produce. Having made the claims, it is clear that they need hard scientifically verifiable evidence to prove it. If they are simply claiming the audio has been enhanced but not overdubbed or edited, then the above email is highly misleading.

Unison officials are circulating emails that are highly prejudicial to the investigation. As they have attempted to influence the investigation, it is now imperative that an external investigation is conducted and they commission their own forensic audio analysis. If the recordings have had any audio enhancement, it should be quite simple to provide an unenhanced copy of the recording. If there are edits or overdubs present, this would quite clearly show that the whole allegation is baseless. If however, there have simply been a few tweaks to suppress background noise and improve the audibility of the tape, then the people who have circulated this email have some very serious questions to answer. I am highy suspicious that there is only one sentence fromw hat is presumably a lengthy report, contained in the above email with no context and no description of the nature of the tampering.

The claims in the above email are a matter of the upmost seriousness. I will be contacting John Burgess to request that he gets a copy of the forensic audio report. I will then review it on his behalf and publish whether this has exposed the tape or simply been misconstrued by people who are not technically qualified to understand what is being said. Either way, the truth has to be told.

One thing is completely clear to me. There is a concerted campaign by the upper echelons of Unison to shut down the debate on the malpractice allegations.

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