[Freedom of speech] should not be diminished by the sort of weasels that find their nests in organisations like the ARB, writes Paul Finch
Earlier in the year this column referred to the Architects Registration Board as a kangaroo court organisation. I could scarcely have imagined that it would have confirmed this dishonourable status in such a spectacular way so shortly afterwards. Its recent decision to fine an architect for calling planning officers liars, without any proper investigation of whether his comments might be justified, shows the danger of giving ill-defined powers to tin-pot would-be politicians.
Anyone who calls a professional a liar in this country is laying him or herself open to a libel or slander action. If you are sued, the likelihood is that you will have to prove your innocence. In other words, if there is a prima facie case that you have libelled someone, then the ‘innocent until proved guilty’ mantra vanishes.
You may think this is an odd reversal of the usual presumption of innocence, but there it is. The important point is that, in order to be convicted of anything at all, or to be sued successfully, the facts are heard in court and each side has a chance to make its case in front of a judge.
The reason the ARB appears to be a kangaroo court operation is that it is entirely divorced from the rigorous processes of the legal system. It is judge and jury.
On what possible basis can it claim authority to fine an architect for expressing a point of view that has not been successfully challenged in any court?
Some with long memories will recall ARCUK, ARB’s predecessor, which also had the idea that it was running the world rather than looking after one of the world’s most boring lists - architects who have passed RIBA (not its own) examinations. ARCUK started telling architects they had to do this or could not do that. It claimed they could not advertise but, when challenged with a threat to go to the courts, it rapidly acknowledged that it was behaving ultra vires.
The absurd characters who administrate the ARB, are like fattening leeches feeding off the body of a helpless architectural profession.
It is deeply shocking that when no architect, nor indeed anyone else, complained about George Oldham’s reference to ‘ethnics’, the registrar complained in effect to herself, triggering off a quite unnecessary investigation. Any self-respecting board would have sacked her.
Regulators seem to think that they can tell architects what they can and cannot say, perhaps because, in ARB’s case, it imposes on them compulsory annual taxes. They are missing the point that freedom of speech is, at the margin, about the freedom to be irresponsible. Go too far and you can be sued or prosecuted, but the definition of how far you can go should not be diminished by the sort of weasels that find their nests in organisations like the ARB.
There is a thin line between telling people what they can say and telling them what they can think. At certain periods of architectural history, divisions within the profession have resulted in extreme criticism, sometimes of a vicious kind. One recalls the battles over critiques of the Modernist city set out by Léon Krier in the 1980s.
Intellectual freedom is dependent on independent expression and a free press. When the ARB started instructing architectural publications that they could not describe Renzo Piano as an architect, it was apparent that Stalinist lunatics had taken over the asylum. Having been told (in politer language) to get stuffed, the board came to its senses and withdrew its impertinent instruction.
But I wonder to myself: would I have dared to write this column were I a registered architect?