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.

Revealed: the RSC’s new sponsorship rules

As Hurricane Harvey’s trail of destruction dominates the media, the urgent need to reduce global fossil fuel emissions has, once again, been made tragically and terrifyingly clear. It’s our responsibility to look to our own organisations – whatever their purpose – and ask: ‘Are we doing what we can to tackle climate change?’

In the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Since 2012 it has been working in partnership with the 11th biggest corporate contributor to climate change the world has ever seen: BP. It is a company whose dogged commitment to extracting massive new sources of fossil fuels decades into the future is a serious stumbling block to curbing the climate crisis. The RSC has been accepting the oil giant’s money in return for profile and branding since 2012, first by sponsoring the World Shakespeare Festival, and now marketing ‘BP £5 tickets’ to 16-25 year-olds.

Then last Friday, as Harvey was gathering its terrible strength over the Gulf of Mexico, and the worst flooding in years was hitting India, Bangladesh and Nepal, killing over 1,200 people and leaving millions homeless, a new Donation and Sponsorship Acceptance Policy appeared for the first time on the RSC’s website.

Culture Unstained approached the RSC several weeks ago and asked if the theatre company would share their policies in this area with us, so were really pleased to see this shared publicly. However, it makes for a disappointing read, especially against the current backdrop of climate disaster around the world.

Tempest

Raising real-life tempests: the RSC allows climate polluter BP to sponsor its work, such as this recent hi-tech production of the Tempest starring Simon Russell-Beale

Forward thinking

Several weeks ago the RSC shared with us their environmental policy, which sets out their commitments on pollution mitigation, energy consumption, waste management and transport. It also contains a very positive commitment to ‘Maintaining a forward thinking, environmentally aware organisation that fulfils our social responsibility’. But sadly, these good intentions do not seem to have been incorporated into the RSC’s sponsorship policy in any visible way.

The newly public sponsorship policy starts by reminding us that ‘Each year, we have to raise an increasing amount of our income from donations and sponsorship to support our work and to fund major capital projects.’ Of course, this is true for arts organisations across the UK. But reading this you could be forgiven for assuming that donations and sponsorship make up a major part of the RSC’s income. They don’t.

In fact, fundraising brings in only 3.7% of the RSC’s annual income – and almost half of that money is spent on the costs of raising it. Meanwhile, over 70% of the RSC’s income of £81.3 million last year came from ticket sales and other trading, and since 2014 the company has been making a more-than-healthy surplus of £4 million per year, in part from the incredible ongoing success of Matilda the Musical. They are certainly not in a position where to refuse a donation on ethical grounds would put the future of the company in jeopardy.

Considering that BP’s contribution to the RSC has been estimated (based on BP’s own figures) at around £375,000 per year – less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and less than a tenth of its annual surplus in recent years, the ‘we need the money’ argument comes across as a little disingenuous.

Credibility and integrity

The policy then sets out the three principles by which all potential donations and sponsorship arrangements are assessed. Do they:

  1. support the charitable objectives of the RSC
  2. reflect the integrity of the RSC
  3. not influence the RSC’s artistic decisions

These are all important but the second one is perhaps most pertinent here. If the RSC says it is committed to being forward-thinking, environmentally aware and sustainable, but then takes money from BP, it surely makes a nonsense of this commitment and damages the RSC’s credibility in the process.

The policy then goes into great detail about the process of how decisions are made. But it has nothing at all to say about ethics. How are controversial sponsors investigated? Against which standards or values are they weighed? All the policy states is that where there is ‘concern’ they will ‘undertake due diligence to establish the legitimacy of the donation or sponsorship…’  But does that due diligence process include investigating a company like BP’s environmental and human rights impacts? There is nothing in the policy to suggest that it should. It is loopholes and woolly definitions like these which left the RSC with the wiggle room to renew its sponsorship deal with the oil company last year. If you are an organisation that is confident in its ethical standards, then you don’t need to give yourself a ‘get out clause’ like this.

Cherri quote

The Gulf Coast, battered by Hurricane Harvey, is still recovering from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill whose impacts on health, livelihoods and wildlife are still being felt today.

Compare this to the Royal Court’s environmental policy, which explicitly states that its scope includes fundraising, and that the theatre ‘will aspire to take an ethical approach to fundraising whenever possible and appropriate, working with those who share our environmental and ethical values.’ Unlike the RSC, these values are stated explicitly on the theatre’s website.

Why can’t the RSC take a similarly transparent approach? The ethics of fundraising will always be complex and require deliberation and value judgements, but it is the responsibility of every high-profile, well-respected organisation – especially those in receipt of significant amounts of public funding – to avoid associating themselves with companies that are doing great damage in the world. If they don’t, they become complicit in that damage, and taxpayers’ funding also becomes tarnished by the promotion of these damaging activities. So having clear ethical guidance with which to exercise judgement about any potential donor is an absolute necessity.

The tide is turning

The RSC’s donations policy goes on to state that ‘The Board takes ultimate responsibility for accepting or refusing a donation or sponsorship. It is their responsibility to act in the best interest of the Charity when accepting gifts.’ That’s where the buck stops. We would argue that the Board are failing to act in the best interest of the RSC by continuing to accept funds from BP. And we are not alone.

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance has said that he won’t work with the RSC until it ends its relationship with BP, despite being an RSC Associate Artist

Many well-respected theatre professionals have leant their support to an alternative, ethical crowdfunded ticket scheme to support young people’s access to the RSC: Fossil Free £5 Tickets. The list includes Mark Rylance (who is an RSC Associate Artist and has regularly spoken out against oil sponsorship of the RSC), Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Tamsin Greig, Caryl Churchill, Max Stafford-Clark, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker, Phyllida Lloyd, Vivienne Westwood, Jasper Britton (also an Associate Artist), Margot Leicester, Moira Buffini, Timberlake Wertenbaker, April de Angelis, Sam Pritchard and Anders Lustgarten.

Theatre critic Lyn Gardner has also argued persuasively that ‘when theatres and arts organisations sacrifice principles for pragmatism and short-term gain, they risk much longer-lasting damage, including compromising artists and leading audiences to question the discrepancy between the work they see on an organisation’s stages and the sponsorship deals it is willing to make.’

The tide is clearly turning against oil sponsorship. Both Tate and Edinburgh International Festival parted company with BP last year, after decades-long relationships, following pressure from the internationally-growing movement for Fossil Free Culture.

Which brings us to the final section of the RSC’s donations policy: refusal. There are no stated circumstances under which a donation could be refused. But such a circumstance is allowed for. And if sufficiently concerned, the Board can seek the support of the Charity Commission. If a donation or sponsorship is refused, a careful record must be kept. So the RSC has decided that it should be possible to say no. But without its ethical principles clearly laid out, how does the RSC expect its staff or Board to make such a judgment?

All in all, it’s a disappointingly vague document. But it’s a start, a first step on the road to transparency and accountability on an issue that has the potential to do the RSC’s reputation significant damage. Now we would like to see the RSC flesh out this policy, align it with its environmental policy and take proper note of the context in which it is making these decisions. After all, no money is given in an ethical vacuum.

Then we urge the Board to fully review the RSC’s relationship with BP, which cannot be allowed to continue much further into a future where the shocking scenes from Houston to Mumbai risk becoming tragically commonplace.

 

The Myth of acceptable oil sponsorship

The RSC takes irony to a new level, publicly defending BP sponsorship while championing a play about the disastrous consequences of ignoring climate change

“Are there any other questions? About… something else?”

This was the none-too-subtle way in which the RSC’s Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman shifted Saturday’s public discussion session – “Why are we not acting on our understanding of the climate crisis?” – away from the issue of the company’s controversial BP sponsorship and onto more comfortable territory.

TAndy quotehe talk was taking place, appropriately enough, before a showing of Kirsty Housley and Matt Hartley’s shocking new play Myth at the RSC’s Other Place. The play explores our tendency to ignore the uncomfortable topic of climate change, and carry on as if nothing is happening, even when the evidence comes crashing in on all sides. The fact that the RSC is essentially doing exactly that by helping to promote one of the companies most responsible for this climate crisis through its £5 ticket scheme for 16 to 25-year-olds, is deeply problematic, and the irony of the situation was thrown into relief by this event.

After 40 minutes of hearing the panel discuss the urgency of the climate crisis and the role of the arts in persuading people to engage meaningfully with the issue, I was the first to ask a question: “A lot of people were surprised and upset last year when the RSC signed a 5-year sponsorship deal with BP; it doesn’t seem to fit that the RSC would choose to ally itself with an incredibly polluting company that’s also impacting on human rights around the world.” I went on to ask the panel: “How should the RSC navigate the need to find sources of funding, in the context of cuts, whilst at the same time genuinely doing your bit on climate change and making sure you’re not inadvertently being part of the problem?”

Mark Rylance comment on crowdfunder

Mark Rylance, Jasper Britton and other theatre professionals have donated to Fossil Free £5 Tickets, an ethical alternative to the BP £5 Ticket scheme

Erica’s explanation of the RSC’s situation toed the familiar party line, as one might expect: “We don’t have another option other than to have a mixed set of funding…about 70% of our income comes from sources beyond our public funding, and that leaves us in a situation where we believe that corporate sponsorship has to be part of that picture.” Talking specifically about BP, she put forth the perhaps more personally-held view that “pretty much all sources of money will have some involvement in contributing to [climate change]. So it doesn’t seem to me as straightforward as saying that there’s one source that’s better or worse.”

After comments from the rest of the panel, she firmly moved the discussion on to other topics, citing the limited time available, before I or my companion – a climate change author and carbon footprint expert – could respond to the issues she raised.

This meant that we weren’t able to point out that corporate sponsorship and philanthropy makes up only 3.7% of the RSC’s annual income, and almost half of that money is spent on the costs of raising it.  Over 70% of the RSC’s income is from ticket sales and other trading income. Since 2014, this has included a surplus profit of over £4 million per year, in part from the incredible ongoing success of Matilda the Musical, which has been transferred into a “Strategic Investment Fund”. BP’s contribution has been estimated at around £375,000 per year – less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and less than a tenth of its annual surplus. Of course, there is a lot we don’t know about the RSC’s finances, but I believe it is worth asking the question: if the RSC wishes to strategically invest in building its future audience through a young people’s ticket scheme, could it draw on its surplus in the short-term to transition away from its reliance on a company that is directly threatening those same young people’s futures?

Help us pull the plug

We also didn’t get the chance to explain that while of course there are ethical issues surrounding many sponsors, fossil fuel companies like BP are increasingly regarded as beyond the pale, consigned to the ‘untouchable’ corner alongside arms and tobacco manufacturers. BP’s sponsorship deals with Tate and the Edinburgh International Festival both ended last year, and hundreds of artists and arts institutions – including the Royal Court – have signed up to a public commitment to never directly take fossil fuel money. There are clear reasons for this: the urgency of the climate crisis, and the active and direct role that companies like BP play in making it worse, both by lobbying to weaken climate legislation and block renewable energy, and by charging ahead with extracting ever-riskier and more carbon-intensive sources of fossil fuel just at the point where we need to rapidly transition away from them.

Finally, we didn’t get to ask what kind of ethical scrutiny had been applied to the sponsorship decision. Did the RSC know that BP is one of the biggest lobbyists against European climate action; that it funds climate change-denying politicians while pushing for massive new pipelines across North America and Europe; that is works closely with, and benefits from, repressive governments in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Indonesia? Was the RSC aware of these facts and agreed to publicly align itself with BP anyway, or did it simply fail to do its homework on these issues?

Benny quote

Other members of the panel did raise concerns. Lucy Latham, from sustainable arts charity Julie’s Bicycle, said: “Julie’s Bicycle thoroughly advocates for a fossil-free arts and culture, but as Erica said it is challenging. We’re certainly not going around saying it’s easy to replace pots of money when we know that arts and culture is being de-funded. What we are advocating is for cultural organisations to start engaging with the topic, and thinking about what their strategy could be to transition to a financial makeup that does not include direct fossil fuel money… The first step is organisations having a transparent and publicly accessible policy on ethical sponsorship.”

Matt Hartley and Kirsty Housley, the writer and writer/director of Myth, both expressed their discomfort at BP branding, especially for tickets to this particular play. Kirsty was quick to point out that she’d felt no pressure from the RSC to censor the content of Myth to please their sponsor, but she also warned: “As self-employed theatre-makers, whose income is precarious, there’s a massive amount of self-censorship” with regard to raising ethical concerns about sponsors. Mark Ravenhill has gone as far as to identify a “climate of fear” among theatre professionals who dare not criticise donors like BP.

But artistic freedom and self-censorship is only one part of this debate. As Lyn Gardner said in her debut blog for The Stage last week, “When theatres and arts organisations sacrifice principles for pragmatism and short-term gain, they risk much longer-lasting damage, including compromising artists and leading audiences to question the discrepancy between the work they see on an organisation’s stages and the sponsorship deals it is willing to make.”

This is why, in partnership with young theatre-goers and theatre professionals, we’re crowdfunding our own alternative Fossil Free £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds. Our new scheme – which gives young people access to affordable RSC tickets without needing to promote BP in the process – is endorsed by Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave, Andrew Garfield, Emma Thompson, Tamsin Greig, Caryl Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maxine Peake, Simon McBurney, Miriam Margolyes, Zoë Wanamaker, Vivienne Westwood, Max Stafford-Clark, Jasper Britton and many other theatre professionals. You can learn more, donate to the scheme or request Fossil Free £5 Tickets here.

Emma quote

Maybe we’re all in denial about climate change, but by branding tickets for young people to see this play with a BP logo, the RSC is looking painfully hypocritical. I’ve now spoken about this with audience-members leaving Myth on two occasions. Many have done a double-take when I’ve told them that the organisation behind this unflinching production is sponsored by an oil company. It’s hard to see how the RSC can maintain its deeply conflicted position for much longer.

If you love the RSC, but not BP, please consider donating to Fossil Free £5 Tickets and supporting a positive alternative to oil sponsorship: https://gofundme.com/fossilfreetix