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.