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The RIBA President is no Wolf of Wall Street

Paul Finch

The kerfuffle at Portland Place is a presidential-sized fuss over nothing, says Paul Finch

The story in The Times this week, giving more details about the alleged circumstances surrounding the temporary departure from office of the RIBA president, begs almost as many questions as it answers.

This is how it runs: a female Midlands architectural assistant seeks help from the RIBA president (Ben Derbyshire) to combat sexism and racism in a practice for which she is working. He refers her to Alan Jones, then vice-president for education, now absentee president.

He pledges to help her find work in a London practice. A relationship develops. She may or may not have spent time in the presidential flat in Portland Place. At some point Jones goes to the police complaining that he is being blackmailed, and reports himself to the institute. The secretariat goes into overdrive, dragging in the Charities Commission and launching a legal inquiry into the president’s conduct, about which there has been no complaint by any RIBA member or, indeed, anybody else. General chaos.

On the basis of what we have been told, the president scarcely qualifies as an architectural Wolf of Wall Street.

The original Times report, quickly corrected, said that the unsuccessful presidential election candidate, Elsie Owusu, would step in to take over in the event of Alan Jones resigning. In fact, it would be a decision for RIBA Council, the obvious candidates being one of the senior officers (the honorary secretary or the honorary treasurer), or potentially some other suitable candidate co-opted onto Council for the purpose.

The paper repeated its favourite quote from Elsie about the presidential election, where she said that the RIBA was a ‘one-party state’ where ‘one white, middle-aged male oligarch hands on power to another’. Although funny, the quote would have come as a surprise to three women who have been institute presidents over the past decade: Ruth Reed, Angela Brady and Jane Duncan. And I don’t think Sunand Prasad would regard himself as white.

As for presidents being oligarchs, a very light scrutiny of the Sunday Times Rich Lists suggests otherwise.

We are not living in ‘unprecedented times’

I am indebted to Jay Merrick for sending me what follows: a section of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published decades after the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London, but based on what appears to have been extensive research and first-hand accounts. It goes to show that some things (restrictions on travel, exponential increases in deaths) don’t seem to change.

The exodus of London architects to their second homes in Suffolk and Norfolk certainly rings bells. I have amended some spellings and have capitalised the City of London for clarity.

Till this week the City continued free, there having never any died, except that one Frenchman whom I mentioned before, within the whole ninety-seven parishes. Now there died four within the City, one in Wood Street, one in Fenchurch Street, and two in Crooked Lane. Southwark was entirely free, having not one yet died on that side of the water.

I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars, on the left-hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the City, our neighbourhood continued very easy.

But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great: and the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner; and this was more particularly seen in Whitechapel; that is to say, the Broad Street where I lived; indeed, nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away; then empty wagons and carts appeared, and spare horses with servants, who, it was apparent, were returning or sent from the countries to fetch more people; besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback, some alone, others with servants, and, generally speaking, all loaded with baggage and fitted out for travelling, as anyone might perceive by their appearance.

This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and as it was a sight which I could not but look on from morning to night (for indeed there was nothing else of moment to be seen), it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the City, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.

This hurry of the people was such for some weeks that there was no getting at the Lord Mayor’s door without exceeding difficulty; there were such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road, or to lodge in any inn.

Now, as there had none died in the City for all this time, my Lord Mayor gave certificates of health without any difficulty to all those who lived in the ninety-seven parishes, and to those within the liberties too for a while. 

This hurry, I say, continued some weeks, that is to say, all the month of May and June, and the more because it was rumoured that an order of the Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them, though neither of these rumours had any foundation but in the imagination, especially at-first.

I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbours did.


Readers' comments (27)

  • Paul, you've written an article where you appear to make light of the fact that a professional in a position of power has engaged in a relationship with a woman in a significantly junior role and who is presumably far younger than him. Anyone is entitled to draw their own conclusions from that evidence in much the same way that you appear to have done.

    This article is made publicly available, comments are invited, and it is anyone's right to remain anonymous. By replying to comments the way you have, you undermine your position, your reputation, and the seriousness with which any of us take your writing. If I worked for AJ, I would feel ashamed at how one of its writers is speaking to its readers.

    I suggest that you reconsider how you besport yourself in these comments, which I would assume are here to encourage civilised debate and conversation, not to enable authors of articles to berate readers. I would also suggest you check your privilege before writing about matters which may involve sexual harassment - white males like us are not entitled to hold forth on what is or is not acceptable behaviour where the rights of women are concerned.

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  • For Phil Cooper - 'it is anyone's right to remain anonymous' - I'm not sure about that, because anonymity in a free and open society (which ours surely is, in principle if not always in practice) is likely, in my mind, to lead to the devaluation of opinions being anonymously voiced - it's not as if the Stasi is busy secretly and aggressively dissecting our lives.
    There's an analogy with women being free to completely cover themselves in public - their religion is respected, but they lose their identity and risk being viewed as less than human in this society - and even, perhaps, in their own.
    I suggest that the anonymous contributors to these comments reconsider how they besport themselves

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  • Just so. If the poison-pen brigade have the right to comment anonymously, then I have the right to reply, even if it means 'besporting myself', ie simply stating views, that someone else doesn't like. Fortunately freedom of speech allows that 'privilege',

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  • I comment anonymously because my employment contract prohibits me expressing views that may be construed as those of my employer, which would therefore include most publicly expressed views on the architectural industry. Nothing more nefarious than that. I fail to see how my pointing out the possible similarities between this case and the Harvey Weinstein case is part of any "poison pen brigade". Clearly Alan Jones thinks he has done something wrong, or why else would he have reported himself? I couldn't agree with Phil Cooper's comments more. However, it appears the author would like the whole thing swept under the carpet for fear it damages the RIBA/the professions reputation. How about we let the investigation conclude before dismissing a situation, which may involve something as serious as sexual harassment, and jumping to conclusions that the whole thing is, to quote the author, a mere "kerfuffle" and "fuss over nothing".

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  • It wasn’t me that jumped to conclusions about a Weinstein connection. I agree we should await developments. How sad that an employer would impose a vow of anonymity, and that an architect (if that is what you are) would accept a job with such a condition.

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  • The tone of this article is condescending and I'm disappointed that it features on such a prominent publication for the profession.

    It's also the second or third article (depending on which is still live on the website, as mentioned by another reader) to play down the news that has broken. These articles don't actually address anything and given the serious matter of the allegations, the headings and content have been incredibly flippant.
    The approach from the AJ in these circumstances, would appear to be as dysfunctional as the ex-president.

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  • Maybe the AJ should offer RECENTLYQUALIFIED an anonymous column?

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  • Thank you for your helpful suggestion.

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  • Seems as though the AJ is turning into a gossip column.

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  • You can agree or disagree with Paul's view. It's an opinion column. But the idea that the AJ isn't covering this matter seriously or is in the pocket of the RIBA/architectural establishment is laughable.
    We've written more than half a dozen exclusive stories since March 31 about the episode including news of Jones standing down, the possible misuse of funds, the Charity Commission involvement, the police inquiries and the fears over blackmail. Will Hurst, managing editor

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