Oil giant BP gained privileged access to UK and foreign politicians and policymakers by sponsoring events at British museums, new documents reveal.
According to emails uncovered via Freedom of Information requests by campaign group Art not Oil, BP has established high-level relationships at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
The oil giant also used its arts sponsorships to lobby politicians ahead of the 2015 General Election and gain access to policymakers and influential figures in other countries of interest such as Russia, Mexico, and Australia.
Last year, BP sponsored the Science Museum’s Cosmonauts exhibit. The company also collaborates with the museum on its Ultimate STEM Challenge – a science and engineering competition for students.
But as emails between BP and the museum show, the two also collaborated on an ‘advocacy plan’ for the May general election.
As an email from the oil company to the museum reads: “[Name redacted] has mentioned in passing that you are preparing an advocacy plan for the upcoming general election – an April meeting is too late to see what is possible for mutual support. Please can we reinstate the meeting as originally planned?”
The meeting went ahead, and one possible outcome can be seen from an email sent by the Science Museum to BP on 1 April 2015, which states: “By now all MPs and Lords will have received our new STEM document, with which you are already familiar!”
A more thorough picture of BP’s influence on policymakers can be seen in its relationship with DCMS.
One month after the General Election, Andrew Minnear and Des Violaris of BP’s UK Government Affairs team, met with Ed Vaizey, Culture Minister.
The notes from this meeting, however, were heavily redacted due to the information being exempt from disclosure rules because it related to “the formulation or development of government policy… [or] the operation of any Ministerial private office.”
As Art not Oil argues: “Rather than dispel concerns about BP’s influence over government policy, the use of these exemptions confirm that material discussed with BP related directly to the development of government policy.
“For a company whose primary activity does not fall within the realm of culture, media and sport, to hold private meetings with the department’s minister(s) and discuss the formation of government policy can only be described as privileged access.”
BP also receives a weekly email from Vaizey’s team – one email shows a breakdown of Vaizey’s social media activity promoting BP’s sponsored exhibits.
And, since 11 May, 2015, BP has courted the Secretary of State for DCMS, John Whittingdale, at several of its sponsored events including: BP’s Annual Business Reception at the British Museum (where Baroness Neville-Rolfe of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, “popped in”); an evening performance by the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition’s prize-winners; a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Cadogan Hall (where the UK’s Russian Ambassador also attended); and a private dinner for the Vogue 100 exhibit.
In an effort to increase its brand exposure – both publicly and with policymakers – the emails show that BP put pressure on the institutions it sponsored to set performance targets; a practice which goes against public statements made just two weeks ago by BP chief executive Bob Dudley that these sponsorships come with “no strings attached.”
A February 2015 email to the National Portrait Gallery shows BP demanding “a significant increase in the number of VIPs attending to at least 50 and a breakdown of who they are including govt [sic] representatives.”
The National Portrait Gallery responded, stating: “Please be assured that we will aim, as always, not only to achieve but ideally to exceed our exhibition visitor target, and to maintain the consistently high levels of sponsor recognition through our marketing campaigns and onsite branding.
“And we will continue to invite VIPs to the key events, which of course you and your colleagues at BP are also very welcome to do.”
BP’s relationship with the British Museum in particular, has been valuable in providing access to influential foreign figures.
As Art not Oil describes, BP’s sponsorships of exhibits relating to key countries of interest to its business operations shows a clear “geopolitical strategy.”
Exhibit launches have included a wide variety of VIPs including Price Charles and the Mexican Ambassador.
What’s more, BP’s direct involvement in the planning stages of the exhibits has allowed the company access to private meetings with other governmental bodies – a key opportunity to build strategic relationships.
For example, BP provided funds to the British Museum beyond its existing sponsorship deal for its Days of the Dead festival celebrating Mexican culture last November. At the same time, BP was preparing to bid for deepwater drilling licenses in the Gulf of Mexico.
Emails from BP to the museum show this event was a top priority for the company. One reads: “Do we have confirmation of Mexican government representation on the evening 30 October? Do we have confirmation from DCMS re UK Government representation on the evening of 30 October?”
BP is now pursuing plans to drill four new ultra-deepwater wells off the south coast of Australia in the pristine waters of the Great Australian Bight, a protected area. Here too, BP has used its arts sponsorships to access foreign figures.
The documents show that in July 2014, as the process to get permission for drilling in the Bight was underway, BP attended a meeting at Australia House with representatives of the British Museum and the Australian High Commission.
And last summer BP sponsored the Museum’s high-profile exhibit Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation.
Finally, there’s BP’s Cosmonauts exhibit. BP is a major operator in Russia and with a 19.75 percent stake, it is the largest shareholder in the state-owned oil company Rosneft, after the Russian government.
As an email to the Science Museum shows, BP sought to influence the exhibit’s opening date: “Please can you focus on w/c 18 and 25 May rather than earlier. 1-9 May are Russia holidays so you’d struggle to engage senior officials then, and the following week our senior Russia team are not in the country.”
The Art not Oil report also highlights the fact that the Science Museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, subsequently received the Pushkin Medal from Russian President Vladimir Putin recognising his role, and that of the Science Museum, in creating the Cosmonauts exhibit.
Art not Oil argues that “with recognition of the exhibit at the highest possible level, BP will have acquired valuable legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian government, and perhaps helped improve Russia’s reputation amongst key UK policymakers.”
Photo via BP or not BP