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Elsie Owusu ‘death threat’ email revealed in full

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The AJ can reveal full details of the email that RIBA presidential candidate Elsie Owusu has claimed was a ‘death threat’ against her

The communication was prominently reported as a threat to Owusu in The Times in April this year, four days after the AJ reported that she was standing for RIBA president.

‘One of Britain’s leading architects has revealed that she was threatened after accusing her professional body of “institutional racism”’, the newspaper reported.

The ‘threat’ was actually part of a lengthy email sent to Owusu in March 2016 by her then fellow councillor Jonathan Ball – a co-founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, which included reference to an obscure folktale. The email has now been obtained by the AJ.

Owusu subsequently reported the email to the Metropolitan Police. After investigating it, the police concluded in October 2016 that there was no case to answer, the AJ understands.

The strongly-worded email is more than 1,000 words long but includes the folktale, which Ball described as a ‘favourite’ story of his which he said he would tell his daughters when they were growing up.

It is this section that Owusu has focused on, circulating it and tweeting it as the ‘death threat’ as recently as 5 July.

The story tells of a man in an ancient land who was condemned to death by his ruler but convinced him to postpone the death sentence by 12 months by ‘guaranteeing’ that the ruler’s favourite horse would speak by then. The ruler says: ‘everyone knows horses can’t talk. But I tell you this … 12 months to the day and hour either my horse talks or you die …’

When the man’s astonished friends queried how he would get the horse to talk, he replied: ‘Look at it this way … in the next 12 months, I might die, in the next 12 months, my ruler might die, in the next 12 months, the horse might die … the horse might talk!’

The Times article reports Owusu as saying the letter referred to ‘a children’s tale about a donkey that died for failing to obey its master’.

The email also criticised Owusu for various things including missing a recent centenary celebration dinner at the RIAS in Edinburgh and sending RIBA councillors a list of proposed actions on ‘Challenging racism and celebrating diversity’ on the evening of the dinner.

‘The first thing that struck me Elsie with your unhappy missive of 10 March … was the incongruity and dissonance,’ Ball wrote ‘and then the timing of its arrival – the very moment your fellow RIBA councillors were actually celebrating diversity.’

In the email, Ball accused Owusu of showing disrespect to the RIAS, the RIBA and to Duncan as president and for claiming she ‘didn’t win [her] election for vice president of practice as the vote was rigged’.

After the folk tale, Ball continued: ‘In the next 12 months Elsie, please think on these things…none of us know what the future holds save that the future has only one place to come from … the past. Join your fellow trustees in celebrating past achievements, addressing wide-ranging present problems and future possibilities.’

Ball concluded the email ‘with sincerity and with respect for your point of view’.

April’s article in The Times quoted Owusu as saying that Ball’s message had told her to ‘think very carefully about what you say and do’ 

In her tweet of July 5, Owusu questioned what she said were recent efforts by the RIBA to persuade the Met Police to erase the complaint about Ball’s ‘death threat’ from its database. ‘Good use of @RIBA subscriptions? #Youdecide,’ she wrote.

Speaking to the AJ, Owusu said she had felt ‘really spooked’ by the email and the number of times it mentioned death. She also pointed to the murder of the MP Jo Cox in June 2016 and said she had consulted friends who had advised that she report Ball’s email to the police as a precaution given ‘if there’s no substance nothing will happen’.

‘It’s a pretty bloody strange story to tell your kids,’ she said, adding that she interpreted the story as a ‘dog whistle’ threat.

‘The RIBA is now spending members’ money to get Jonathan Ball’s name redacted from Met Police records … [RIBA honorary secretary] Kerr Robertson has told me that I should apologise to Ball.’

Owusu is one of three candidates standing for the RIBA presidency alongside Alan Jones and Phil Allsopp. Voting closes on 7 August.

She provoked the ire of the RIBA establishment during the campaign by publicly criticising the salary of RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance and was sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter from Robertson intended to prevent her making ’damaging public statements’ about the institute.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ‘Our trustees play an invaluable role in RIBA’s success, so it’s important they can work together for the benefit of the organisation. Whilst trustees in any charity have a fiduciary responsibility to act in a collegiate manner and a duty to resolve differences between themselves, we believe we have a duty of care to support trustees in the execution of their role. Given this, the RIBA took the decision to provide external mediation to both parties, with a view to finding a satisfactory resolution; they were also both verbally invited to apologise to one another.’

Jonathan Ball declined to comment.

Read next: Reports of Elsie Owusu’s death-threat prove greatly exaggerated

Full text of Ball’s letter

Subject: Re: RIBA Council – Edinburgh

21 March 2016

The first thing that struck me Elsie with your unhappy missive of 10 March 2016 20:51 was the incongruity and dissonance……firstly in the title heading for your words……words so heavy in Challenging & Confrontation, so light in Celebration……..and then the timing of its arrival - the very moment your fellow RIBA Council Members were actually celebrating diversity…… 

We were uniting in harmonious accord…..we were saluting the RIAS……conveying our respect as RIBA Trustees for all the achievements these past one hundred years…..we were appreciating their generous hospitality in elegant surroundings……I am sad you missed it……. 

The walls of 15 Rutland Square,their Right Royal Incorporation,so heavy with history,redolently setting the scene for an inspiring talk on Scotland’s Festival of Architecture to commemorate their RIAS Centenary,reaching out to the society they serve and signposting a desirable future for all…….an Incorporation of Architects united by heritage, an ancient Celtic tribe and one of several who comprise, alongside Anglo Saxon England,the United Kingdom…..sharing equal pride in our Sovereign Queen whose patronage ( in your own words ) you have been delighted and honoured to enjoy as a recipient…….. 

By absenting yourself on this special evening, having accepted the invitation, you sent us all a signal………it was disrespectful …….of our hosts the RIAS for their achievements and hospitality, of our RIBA staff for their tireless endeavours to ensure all the best arrangements for our convenience,and of your fellow RIBA Trustees who have common interest and obligations to be courteous in discharging our duty…… 

Please do not forget we are a National Charity…..above all first we must , as Trustees, look to our fiduciary duty….not to allow self promotion or self interest before that of the Charity……to monitor and use our best endeavours against harm, diminishing of reputation,or having the Charity brought into disrepute…..to ensure all charitable assets are used with proportionality,probity and propriety in furtherance of our Charter objectives and Members interests…..I could go on……. 

Elsie,in order to secure respect for your passionately held views may I invite you to the view that you must first give respect…..your giving Jane a good kicking with your megaphone politics when equality and diversity is one of her chosen flagship policies is, to my mind, a disgrace…… 

Our President’s electoral mandate sits well above yours or mine as Nationally Elected Councillors…..it is for Jane, not you or me, to set the pace and the agenda in collaboration with the Board,and for us then to work together in common interest,listen to cogent argument and give each other the benefit of the doubt…… 

You need to be clear that I am not racist but I am an enemy of all forms of extremism …… I champion the celebration of cultural diversity as evidenced, I hope, by my passion and enthusiasm for my own Celtic tribe, the Cornish, to receive measured recognition and respect within Jane’s policy ambitions……. 

Your assertions (2.2 / 2.3) that you didn’t win your election for Vice President Practice as the vote was rigged cannot stand unchallenged…. I take this as impugning my personal integrity……as newly elected to Council I had no knowledge of events before the election….I listened to both candidates and voted for whom I felt was best qualified and most suitable to represent the RIBA in this important portfolio …..you lost on this occasion by two to one voting of your fellow Trustees…..take it in good grace and move on…….. 

Most of us have suffered such setbacks over the years….. the RIBA Council reputation is founded on evenhandedness, tolerance and uninhibited free speech……..It is rigorous in respect for democratic process and meritocratic in its instincts,welcoming of sound evidence based argument yet dismissive to cliched unsubstantiated outbursts rooted in self interest masquerading as moral principle……. 

Equally be ever mindful of another RIBA characteristic and tradition - the members we have the honour to represent do not value us less for having stood for election and lost….there is always admiration for a toughness in taking on a contest where you could at least as easily lose as win….. 

I am all too aware I am going on a bit but it has taken me a week or more to digest and reflect on your seven page broadside to us all….. 

When our daughters were growing up they would get a favourite story of mine …………. 

……” Once upon a time, long long ago, an ancient Ruler in an ancient land condemned one of his subjects to death…..he was granted his last wish of audience with his Ruler……’ Ruler,you have a favourite horse - spare me my life and within a year I guarantee to get your favourite horse to speak…’…..nonsense everyone knows horses can’t talk…..but I tell you this ….twelve months to the day and hour either my horse talks or you die….’the condemned man went off to the pub with his mates to celebrate….how in Gods name are you going to get that horse to talk ?….

Look at it this way was the reply…..in the next twelve months I might die……..in the next twelve months my Ruler might die…..in the next twelve months the horse might die…………the horse might talk!!! “…….. 

In the next twelve months ,Elsie,please think on these things……..none of us know what the future holds save that the future has only one place to come from….the past…….join your fellow Trustees in celebrating past achievements,addressing wide ranging present problems and evolving future possibilities…..carry in your mind that all of us on RIBA Council are here to help the world along and hopefully leave it a better place than when we came to it……you do not hold a monopoly of caring…..sign up, as we do ,in support of our President in her honest attempts to have and lead an Institute fit for purpose for our times……. 

No more seven page lectures please, no more threats, park up the anger you carry around with you on the pavement outside 66 Portland Place………your cause will prosper through winning support by meritorious arguing of the benefits,courteous collaboration and by mutual respect and a listening ear to all points of view…….accept your agenda has already gobbled up considerable resource and should now take its place in a queue ………. 

Perhaps we should both remember we are but single voices on Council…..my single voice,alone if it so be,is to say priority should now be given to other matters arguably more pressing to our members interests here and now……… 

” Oh hush the noise,ye men of strife,and hear the angels sing……” 

With sincerity and with respect for your point of view, 

Jonathan in sunny Cornwall. 

Jonathan Ball MBE AADip RIBA FRSA

Co Founder, The Eden Project, Architect and Writer

This story was updated on 3 August 2018. The story previously said that Ball’s email had been sent to all RIBA councillors in the first instance. The AJ now understands that Ball’s email was originally sent directly to Owusu before being sent to all her fellow councillors.

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  • 13 Comments

Readers' comments (13)

  • Rather poorly phrased email and very much beating along the bush, but I don't think it amounts to a death threat. I feel like this squabble is unprofessional, blown out of proportions, and distracting everyone from their jobs. I hope that whoever wins the election will be productive and not engage in this sort of petty rhetoric again

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  • This is petty beyond belief. No wonder nobody takes us seriously as a profession.

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  • Don’t quite see how that’s a death threat? Was a very beautifully written email though.

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  • Excessive and incorrect use of ellipsis. Unforgivable...

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  • Though I don't quite understand the relevance of the horse tale, Jonathan Ball's email seems a well balanced response to what appears to have been intemperate earlier comments by Elsie Owusu. Ms. Owusu's response to Mr Ball's email would also appear to have been a similarly considerable over-reaction.

    It reminds me of when I was an RIBA councillor a decade or so ago when a fellow councillor took great exception to my use of the well known phrase 'motherhood and apple pie' that I used in the context of some architectural topic I’ve long since forgotten, but I remember her describing it, to my amazement, as ‘sexist’! I believe it’s of American origin, probably used by US soldiers who longed for the good things of life back home, and the lady in question should particularly have been aware of it as she was an RIBA overseas councillor who lived in the USA.

    The lady also took offence at another well-known phrase I used, ‘Balkanisation’, again in the context of an architectural issue I’ve since forgotten, describing it as uncaring or war-mongering – I can’t remember precisely which.

    These, and Ms. Owusu’s unwarranted reactions are indicative of the egg shells we are all forced to walk on nowadays in our increasingly fractured and un-cohesive society – which is to the detriment of all of us.

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  • Phil Parker

    I have read the email and do see it as a veiled death threat!

    What I’d do see is an Institute that is loosing all credibility both inside and outside of the profession. No wonder vote turn out is so low.

    I will not be renewing my RIBA membership next year. I am fed up with all the silly infighting in hand inability to tackle the big issues facing our profession.

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  • Phil Parker

    Apologies - I meant to say I do not see the email as a ‘death threat’ / more publicity stunt.

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  • Simon Blackburn and Phil Parker have responded to this email correctly. The others make me ashamed to be an architect

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  • Tom Partridge

    I wouldn't consider it a beautifully written e-mail, and its horse-parable reference is bizarre. The overuse of 'big words' and attempts at poetic sentences is designed to imply wit and intellectual agility. Quite simply it's very bourgeois bullying. He tries to make her feel as if 'everyone' (us) is feeling insulted by 'you', and therefore 'you' (Elsie) are an outsider. It's playground politics, and as S. Blackburn points out, does nothing for the integrity of the profession.
    Lastly, the comment:
    "I champion the celebration of cultural diversity as evidenced, I hope, by my passion and enthusiasm for my own Celtic tribe, the Cornish..."
    The Cornish!!! Seriously, this guy needs to get a grip.

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  • Tom Partridge has just expressed exactly what I was thinking.

    I'd add also that I know very little of the run up to this e-mail or quite how Ms Owusu has got people's backs up. However Mr Ball's response makes me think that if this is what she's up against, she has just gained all my sympathy.

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