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Prejudice and amateurism within the ARB board

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Prejudice, stupidity, hypocrisy: the email leak has exposed harsh truths about the ARB board, writes Rory Olcayto

What was ARB board member George Oldham thinking when he referred to Lisa Basu and Kirk Ray Morrison - the two Stephen Lawrence Trust-backed candidates campaigning to join the board - as ‘the ethnics’? Coupled with Oldham’s website profile, which lists his main interest as golf-course design, no one could be blamed for thinking our profession is still an old (white) boy’s club. The ARB board has no black or Asian members.

Clearly Oldham wasn’t thinking at all. Because when he sent the email he copied in our news reporter Merlin Fulcher. And it gets worse. A reply by fellow board member Ruth Brennan went on to rudely dismiss RIBA president Angela Brady, and in the same sentence profess that unlike the RIBA, ‘at least us at the ARB are acting in a professional manner’. Apart from the terrible English - which we can forgive because the medium is email - the hypocrisy here is crushing. Brennan had sought Brady’s support for re-election to the ARB board.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the ARB board members’ almighty slip-up and the leaked US embassy cables that revealed the one-sided nature of America’s ‘special relationship’ with Britain: ‘More paranoid than usual… humorous, if it were not so corrosive’.

It feels like a WikiLeaks moment - but it’s not. In fact in some ways it’s more serious. That information - thousands of cables sent from US embassies back to Washington - was deliberately leaked, whereas the ARB board members’ indiscretion was revealed through an act of carelessness. And where WikiLeaks’ revelations, while shocking, ultimately told us nothing new - few Britons would believe the US thinks of us as equal partners - the ARB emails suggest that there is a layer of prejudice and amateurism within the body that regulates this profession. You may have suspected this. Now you know.

The WikiLeaks affair upturned more than diplomatic relations around the world: the purpose of journalism and what constitutes news has since been debated in a new light. Some have argued that the leaked cables have helped to crack the necessary facade of decorum used to maintain spiky relationships and actively work against democracy, in that such exposure makes diplomacy harder.

You might argue that a careless email from an outgoing ARB board member and another from an overexcited member seeking re-election is similarly low-protein, and should be overlooked. Who cares what Brennan thinks of Brady? Or Oldham’s choice of words for people from different backgrounds to himself?

We do. We think it matters. As the book The Death and Life of American Journalism declares, healthy journalism should entail ‘a rigorous account of people who are in power and people who wish to be in power, in the government, corporate and non-profit sectors’. So I’ll start with a question we all should be asking: given their comments, whose interests are being acted upon when Oldham and Brennan meet to discuss your profession? I’m guessing, not ‘the ethnics’. I really hope I’m wrong.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The Architectural Profession comprises people of all backgrounds and nationalities, and Oldham's reference to "ethnics" is very amateurish and unprofessional. Architectural education in the UK benefits from the fees and input of people from all over the world, who bring their own ideas and add value to our culture. The UK has always developed through assimilating ideas from abroad, in all respects, so this term of reference "ethnics" is totally uncalled for. What should only be of value is the particular candidate's contribution should he or she be elected. All other comments are irrelevant and show the ARB in a poor light. The RIBA president is a woman, and represents women who are in a minority in professions such as architecture, and we should be encouraging equality, not stabbing it in the back!

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