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

Simon Aldous

Jonathan Ball’s rambling email to Elsie Owusu may be bizarre in places, but it seems quite a leap to read it as a threat against her life, writes Simon Aldous

RIBA presidential candidate Owusu recently tweeted a quote from Alice Through the Looking Glass where Humpty Dumpty declares: ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Which words she had in mind was not clear, but it has transpired she seems to have adopted quite a flexible usage of the term ‘death threat’.

Owusu first publicly alleged that she had received a death threat from an RIBA trustee when interviewed by The Times last April. She said it had come shortly after she accused the institute of institutional racism and that she had forwarded it to the police. The RIBA’s response, she said, was to ask her to apologise to the email’s author.

It certainly seemed credible that an organisation largely run by middle-aged white people, while abhorring the notion it might be racist, could perhaps be insensitive to the struggles and obstacles that non-white architects experience.

Earlier this year, the AJ’s race diversity survey showed BAME respondents listing an array of specific incidents of prejudice they had encountered in practice, with one summing up the feeling that the profession was ‘predominantly a white boys’ club … largely unwilling to recognise it had a problem’.

When asked whether they agreed with this claim, Owusu’s fellow presidential candidate Alan Jones responded that ‘those making such corrosive comments are not being helpful’.

Nevertheless, it’s quite a leap from that to actual death threats.

With the full text of the ‘death threat’ email now revealed it becomes clearer why the RIBA has not been particularly sympathetic to Owusu’s allegation.

The email, sent by Owusu’s then fellow RIBA councillor Jonathan Ball, is a lengthy ramble in response to Owusu’s ‘institutional racism’ claims. It even includes the classic phrase ‘I am not a racist but’ – though he follows it with the words: ‘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’, perhaps depicting them as fellow victims of ethnically based oppression.

Surely Ball wasn’t saying the chances of the RIBA sorting out its diversity problems were as likely as a horse talking

In places it is unclear what point Ball is attempting to make, particularly towards the end when he includes the obscure folk tale that Owusu construed to contain the death threat.

Some research suggests that the fable is a traditional Turkish folk tale concerning the 13th-century philosopher Nasreddin. Sentenced to death by a ruler, he pleads: ‘spare me my life and within a year I guarantee to get your favourite horse to speak. The ruler agrees saying: 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 …”

Explaining his actions to his friends later on, Nasreddin says: ‘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 even talk!!!’

What is the message of this story? It seems most obviously to be in praise of procrastination. Put off an unpleasant course of action and things may sort themselves out anyway.

What message was Ball trying to convey? He has declined to comment on the letter so we can only guess: perhaps that any problems the RIBA had with diversity would sort themselves out in time; though surely he wasn’t saying the chances of that happening were as likely as a horse talking.

Owusu however, as she has told the AJ, was ’really spooked’ by the story and the references to death. In May, she wrote an open letter to the AJ saying: ‘a fellow RIBA trustee, sent me a letter threatening “…I guarantee in 12 months … you will die…” repeating the words “death” and “you will die” several times in a short paragraph.’

In the original Times article, she is quoted as saying the letter included ‘a children’s tale about a donkey that died for failing to obey its master’ – which seems a particularly Humpty-Dumptyish interpretation.

Now the actual context is available, it seems little surprise that the Metropolitan Police concluded there was no case to answer and that the RIBA urged Owusu and Ball to apologise to one another.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Who needs Eastenders when you have all this melodrama?

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  • Its obviously a quiet news month. This sort of 'news' is what the expression 'Jump the Shark' was coined for......

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  • Phil Parker

    This story will run and run and damages the RIBA.

    Stephen Lawrence‘s murder was tragic beyond words and it laid bare a side to our society that many would rather not acknowledge. I have supported the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust over the years and have had the honour of meeting his paraents. The Trust’s work is commendable and the involvement of former RIBA president Marco Goldschmeid in fundraising should be more widely recognised.

    What surprises me is that Elise Owusu has tried to use the association of Stephen Lawrence’s ambition to one day be an architect to launch an unwarranted attack on the RIBA ( and, dare I say, launch her preseidential campaign).

    To alledge that the RIBA is fundamentally institutionally racist and sexist is quite extraordinary. In my opinion it is quite wrong, there is no evidence of this and in the long run, it damages the RIBA.

    My two daughters are both architects (one is mixed race) and both have had the most extraordinary support from the RIBA during all stages of their careers.

    I do not understand why Owusu believes her campaign is relevant, helpful or has any likelihood of success.

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  • I am glad that the full transcript of Jonathan’s e-mail has been published. Those of us that have the pleasure of knowing Jonathan will have found him to be an entertaining, informed, compassionate and fascinating architect and council member.

    Whilst his somewhat theatrical rhetoric may not be to the taste of all, his message was one that I supported. Namely one of respect for all, whatever views we may have. My experience of council is at odds with the picture perpetuated by Elsie.

    I have found her to be an inspiring and motivated individual and have a great deal of respect for her. However her continued attack on the RIBA is, I feel, detrimental to progressive and productive debate.

    All that Jonathan was trying to say is that one has to respect the institute within which some of us are lucky enough to have a voice.

    I am sure there are ways we can always do better however there is now a fear within some of the RIBA council members that any view expressed with which Elsie disagrees will be met by a claim of institutional racism or worse in the architectural press.

    Jonathan championed debate, encouraged diverse views, disagreed passionately about some issues but above all respected and admired those with which he disagreed.

    Let’s not let this perpetuate the myth that the RIBA is irrelevant or an old boys club. It’s our institute and it should be the crucible of informed debate that furthers our fantastic profession.

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