Freedom of Information

Request victory against Tate challenges culture of secrecy around arts sponsorship

October 11, 2016

British Museum admits it cannot ‘contract out’ of FOIA after Tate case.


The victory of Request Initiative at the Information Tribunal after a four-year battle to force Tate to publish the amounts of sponsorship received from oil company BP is beginning to undermine the culture of secrecy around such deals, the company director claimed today.

The Science Museum Group (SMG) has refused a request from climate campaigners for information relating to the sponsorship of the new Wonderlab children’s gallery by Statoil – but noted after appeal that it would no longer use some of the tactics relied on by Tate in the earlier case.

Tate had told the information tribunal that it simply assumed that BP would not want the sponsorship amounts published and that the information was subject to a confidentiality clause in the contract which could result in the galleries begin sued. Tate therefore tried to exempt the requested information under Section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act.

The judges seemed rather alarmed that Tate was arguing that it had effectively “contracted out” its responsibilities under the act and made clear that legislation enacted in Parliament trumped any contract a commercial organisation might sign. In July the court ordered Tate to release the information.

Today, the campaign group Art Not Oil Coalition has made public the refusal from the Science Museum following its request for the Statoil sponsorship. The publication comes on the same day that a letter signed by 50 respected scientists and campaigners asking for the museum to cut ties with the oil company appears in The Guardian.

Mindful of the Risk

The Science Museum FOIA officer states: “[I] have decided that SMG should not rely on s.41 of FOIA in relation to the sponsorship amount because: the sponsorship amount was not ‘obtained’ from Statoil because it was arrived at during a process of negotiation between SMG and Statoil; and I have reviewed the comments made by the Information Tribunal in the second Tate case about being mindful of the risk of attempting to ‘contract out of FOIA’.”

Brendan Montague, the founder and director of the Request Initiative, said: “It is extremely gratifying to see that all the hard work we put in fighting Tate and its misuse of FOIA to hide the detail of its financial deals with BP is now having a positive impact on other cases.

“However, it is disappointing that this has not resulted in the release of the requested information. Using FOIA can be a war of attrition but by chipping away at the various excuses given by public bodies we can move towards a culture of greater transparency. This will allow for a more informed public debate about these vital issues.”

The Science Museum continues to argue that releasing the figures relating to the sponsorship deal is likely to “prejudice the commercial interests of SMG or any third party” and has therefore refused the information under Section 43(2) of the FOIA. The museum relies on the same “price list” argument presented by Tate which manifestly collapsed under scrutiny by the tribunal judges.

Tate had during two information tribunals presented an elaborate argument that publishing the amount paid in sponsorship by BP for extensive publicity at one of its galleries would allow rival companies to establish its “price list” and drive down the amount of money raised. Tate staff then in evidence admitted no other sponsor had come forward to bid against the BP deal.

Laughing Stock

Mr Montague added: “We strongly encourage Art Not Oil to take this case to the Information Commissioner and then to tribunal. The Science Museum is using the same arguments that Tate put forward which ultimately failed.

“It’s extremely disappointing that Britain’s art institutions fear open debate and transparency when it comes to accepting cash from oil companies with poor environmental records.”

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, and the scientist Professor Jonathan Oppenheim, said in a statement released today: “It is unconscionable that in 2016 a museum of science is handing a fossil fuel company legitimacy by allowing it to sponsor a gallery designed to inspire the next generation.”

Dr Alice Bell, a former Science Museum employee, said: “It’s shocking that, in 2016, scientific institutions like the Science Museum think it’s okay to lend their name to PR for oil and gas companies…The Science Museum used to be a world leader in science communication for children, now it’s rapidly becoming a laughing stock.”

Request Initiative, a non-profit community interest company, was supporting Liberate Tate in challenging the refusal through the FOIA tribunal. BP announced shortly before the tribunal that it would no longer sponsor Tate, but claimed this was due to commercial pressures.

Request Initiative was successful in its fight with Tate at tribunal in large part due to the pro bono support of barrister Julianne Kerr Morrison of Monckton Chambers and solicitor Rosa Curling of Leigh Day.

The Information Commissioner had originally supported Tate’s “price list” argument but performed a dramatic u-turn at tribunal when the witness statements from the gallery staff undermined the case.

Science Museum refusal.