Emails reveal university ready to help BP clamp down on critics at City of Culture

As the University of Hull prepares to host the last in a series of BP-sponsored lectures tonight as part of Hull City of Culture, Culture Unstained has made public a series of damning emails which reveal that as pressure has mounted on BP’s sponsorship of the festival, the university – and members of the City of Culture team – have been willing to help BP contain the company’s critics. And appropriately, tonight’s final “BP Cultural Visions” lecture will be delivered by Director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, a museum that has faced controversy over its own oil sponsorship deals with BP, Shell and Statoil.

BP Sponsors Hull 2017

Back in 2015, it was announced that BP would become the first major corporate sponsor of Hull 2017 – UK City of Culture, just months after the company had pulled out of high-profile sponsorship deals with Tate and Edinburgh International Festival. It would provide an important opportunity for BP to boost its much tarnished brand, not just in the local area – but across the UK – as the media spotlight settled on the city for the coming year.

BP Cultural Visions

In a bid to capitalise on its sponsorship deal, BP partnered with the University of Hull in order to hold a series of lectures featuring respected artists and cultural figures, events shamelessly branded as the ‘BP Cultural Visions’ lecture series. Many of the speakers were drawn from BP-sponsored museums and galleries – such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or Royal Opera House – or had other links to the company in other ways, such as past winners of the BP Portrait Award. But in October, BP gave up any pretence of a genuine interest in the arts when it brazenly presented its own Vice President as a speaker alongside the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, with the City of Culture director Martin Green hosting. It was during the Q&A of that particular lecture that Martin Green decided that a legitimate question about BP’s record on climate change would not be answered, appearing to defend the company’s VP from reasonable scrutiny. (See video below.)

Damning emails

Through a Freedom of Information request made to the University of Hull, Culture Unstained has now uncovered a series of damning emails which reveal that as pressure mounted on BP’s sponsorship of the festival, the university and members of the City of Culture team had been willing to help BP clamp down on the company’s critics. The most concerning examples include…

  • When criticism of BP emerged on social media following one lecture, the university’s Press Officer attempted to contact staff at BP to see “whether they want us to get rid of the comments”. Subsequent lectures were not live-streamed on the university’s social media but videos later posted on BP’s website after the event.

Extract 1 - delete comments

  • Early in the year, BP’s Head of Arts & Culture, Des Violaris, urged staff at the City of Culture to create a special Q&A for speakers on how to deal with “awkward questions” about BP sponsorship.

Extract 2 - awkward questions

And when the larger briefing on the lecture series is discussed by a member of the City of Culture team, they explain how they have created a section on ‘activist activity’. They also make direct reference to BP’s ‘intelligence on activists’, raising questions about how the company monitors its critics.

Importantly though, the legitimate questions raised about the company’s business activity or the ethical appropriateness of its sponsorship, all came from members of the audience during the lectures’ allotted Q&A period.

Extract 4 - intelligence on activists

  • When the Huffington Post published a blog critical of BP sponsorship at the end of 2016, the BP’s Head of Arts & Culture advised the university to “have bag searches on the evening” and put the company’s security team in touch with the university. While it is not mentioned in the emails, police attended the next lecture with no apparent cause for them having been called.

Extract 3 - bag searches

  • And when making film clips of one lecture for BP, university staff offer to get sound bites from “the audience as long as it’s not the activist”.

Extract 5 - not the activist

An ongoing pattern

Back in 2016, Art Not Oil published an in-depth report on BP sponsorship of the arts. It included a series of emails outlining when members of security and senior staff at the museums and galleries the company sponsors had met with BP’s own security team to devise ways of containing the criticisms of peaceful arts activists. It also provided evidence of how BP uses its cultural sponsorship as part of a wider PR and lobbying strategy and, at times, attempted to influence the decisions of its ‘cultural partners’.