Academic Freedom, Corporate Relationships, and the BP Archive

Archives are essential repositories where information can be stored for posterity, sorted for investigation, and arranged for the public good. Historians, researchers, journalists, campaigners – all draw on the rich documentary record contained in governmental, organisational and corporate archives.

We should welcome such archives to our campus. They benefit our community and signal the prestige of our institution. The BP Archive, however, is no such institution of academic progression.

Imagine that our campus housed an archive on the old Russian intelligence service, the KGB. Imagine this archive not only contained the documentary record of the KGB, but was entirely controlled and staffed by KGB officers.

Imagine still more that the KGB was leased half of one of the finest buildings on campus, rent-free. The KGB – an intelligence service which perpetrated human rights abuses, disseminated propaganda, and more – controlled the entire flow of information to those who wanted to view it. They used it to promote their reputation, and conceal their crimes. Crucial documents regarding historical periods of great interest to the public were kept in utter secrecy.

If this hypothetical situation pertained in reality, one would expect an outcry. Students and staff would demand this heinous intelligence service vacate campus, and hand over the documents to the University’s expert archivists, who could manage them in the public interest.

This is actually directly analogous to the situation at the University of Warwick today. BP – a company which was just branded the top European company blocking the transition to a renewable energy system, is accused of complicity in serious human rights abuses in Colombia, and is responsible for the worst off-shore oil spill in history – controls and manages its only UK-based corporate archive on our campus.

This Archive isn’t used as a neutral vassal for academic knowledge, but, in BP’s own words, to “enhance its reputation”. Billions of pounds worth of vital renewable technology research conducted by the company – before it sold off most of its renewable interests – is kept sealed away from everyone, due to its pre-1976 access rule (and despite public claims to the contrary by Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s Chairman). The flow of information is controlled from start to finish, BP vetting all documents for “commercial sensitivity” before allowing them to be viewed, and maintaining a veto over any articles or documents researchers wish to put into the public domain. The staff openly state that their “primary focus is on supporting the BP businesses globally”. The University has absolutely no control over any of this, and has absurdly handed over 59% of the Modern Records Centre to BP for 50 years, rent-free.

Fossil Free Warwick University believes that access to these files should not be determined by a for-profit company, and that this necessarily conflicts with the aim of the University: to be a place of transparent research and unfettered academic inquiry, functioning in the public interest. Indeed, we believe that the notorious lack of transparency at the Archive is not incidental, but a direct consequence of it being subject to direct corporate control.

As such, when we say we want ‘BP Off Campus’, what we are demanding is that the relationship between BP and the University be completely severed, and that we stop being complicit in this horrific company’s propaganda efforts. Our central demand is for control of the Archive to be handed over the MRC, to be managed in the public interest, and in-line with academic standards of free inquiry.

The point mustn’t be lost that BP is a fundamentally appalling company. Allowing it to carve out an enclave in the middle of campus lends it legitimacy and suggests that we’re happy to be making deals with such an organisation. As Chris Maughan, IAS fellow and sessional tutor, says: “The relationship between the University of Warwick and the BP Archive must be overhauled. Not only do the current arrangements constitute an affront to the democratic value of open and accessible archives but also certainly contribute in shameful ways to the ‘greenwashing’ of BP’s public image.”

Academic Freedom, Corporate Relationships, and the BP Archive

Warwick Ignores Fossil Free’s Freedom of Information Request

The relationship between Warwick University and BP is murky. Few in the know want to talk about it, and little information is in the public domain.

We’ve submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the University to discover a little more about the BP Archive and the relation it has to Warwick.

The questions we wanted answered were:

  • Does BP pay any annual rent for the Archive space? According to documents from the Land Registry, they pay none.
  • Why was ownership of the Modern Records Centre seemingly transferred from the ownership of the University to then-trustees in 1996? And why has it seemingly not been transferred to new trustees since?

We also wanted to get access to:

  • Any further agreements between the University and BP which are not accessible through the Land Registry, from 1990 to the present day.
  • Correspondence between senior management and BP regarding discussions they’ve had about the Archive, and any discussions they’ve had about Fossil Free Warwick.

We submitted the FOI on Sept. 20. Under the FOIA 2000, a public authority has 20 working days to respond to a request. It is now 36 working days since we submitted the request, and we have still received no response, in violation of the law.

After the first 20 days elapsed, we contacted Warwick to chase them up. They claimed they were seeking clarification on the wording of the request, and since they hadn’t heard back from us, were going to terminate the process. We never received this ‘clarification email’, as is shown on the publicly available correspondence:

Since their demand for clarification only pertained to part of the original request, we expected a response from the University to other parts of the request. We never received this. We offered our clarification on the remaining parts of the request, and expected to hear back with the University’s response. We are still waiting.

Universities in general – and Warwick is a leader in the pack – are notoriously opaque, and do anything they can to avoid releasing information under the FOI Act. We know of numerous cases where Warwick has ignored emails, failed to respond within the statutory limit, and wielded ‘exemptions’ under the law which push the boundaries of logic and legality. The ‘Legal Compliance Team’ is seemingly there to ensure Warwick releases as little information as possible, whilst cloaking such anti-democratic processes in the veneer of legality.

Warwick, what are you trying to hide?

Warwick Ignores Fossil Free’s Freedom of Information Request