Did The Times censor criticism of BP?

UPDATE: we have been in touch with The Times who claim that the two different versions resulted from the late addition of the line about BP – not its removal. We have therefore asked them to add the missing line or delete the old version in order to bring the article in line with what they published in their paper edition, but have so far not had a response.

It looks like it.

Today’s Times contains a glowing 5-star review of the British Museum’s new Scythians exhibition, due to open to the public tomorrow. The original review by Rachel Campbell-Johnson, which appears in today’s print version of the newspaper, contained a rather embarrassing phrase in its first paragraph:

“although, according to a party of vociferous protesters yesterday, the choice of BP as the exhibition’s sponsor was ill advised”

Photo of Times with paragraph marked

This refers to a fantastically cheeky performance intervention by the activist theatre troupe BP or not BP?, who posed as BP staff at the exhibition’s press launch yesterday, and the museum were no doubt highly irritated by the mention of the controversy around their sponsor in an otherwise fabulous review.

Then things get seriously dodgy.

The original version of the review can no longer be found via the Times website. Instead, it sends you to a new version, which is identical except that the phrase mentioning BP protesters is now missing. It is this edited version – devoid of criticism of its sponsor – that has been shared enthusiastically by the British Museum.

Edited text screenshot

Intriguingly, the original version can still be seen online. We’ve screenshotted it in case it disappears.

Screenshot of original review

This looks like blatant censorship of Rachel Campbell-Johnson’s review, and is incredibly dubious editorial practice. It’s hard to imagine why it would have happened unless either the British Museum (already embroiled in a racism row today) or BP had objected to the original, contacted the Times and persuaded them to change it.

If this sounds unlikely, take a look at the British Museum’s communications strategy for the Scythians exhibition, which Culture Unstained have obtained through Freedom of Information requests. This document shows how proactively the British Museum press office tries to manage positive profile for BP. According to their “Strategy to maximise sponsor credits”: “The press office will request sponsor credits are included with all journalists and editors they are in direct contact with, including follow-up reminders where possible.”

Of course, it’s equally possible that BP itself pushed for this change – no doubt they are an important source of advertising revenue for the Times, and have friends in high places at the newspaper.

Either way, this is censorship of legitimate and widespread concerns that BP is an inappropriate sponsor for a cultural institution, due to its continued extraction of fossil fuels, lobbying against effective climate legislation and collusion with human-rights abusing regimes around the world. The choice of BP as sponsor for the Scythians exhibition is particularly ironic, as the future of Scythian archaeology is being directly threatened by climate change. Hundreds of unexcavated Scythian graves in the Altai mountains are under threat from melting permafrost, and archaeologists say it is a race against time before much of the region’s incredible cultural heritage simply rots away.

If the Times editors have any other explanation for this seemingly highly political edit, we are eager to hear it. Otherwise, this looks like the British Museum or BP going to ever more extreme lengths to cover up criticism of the oil company’s true nature.

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