An interesting spectacle greeted the audience who gathered this evening to hear Peter Sutherland give a lecture on Europe’s Place in the World in the 21st Century: some 15 students from the LSE Student Union were sitting on the stage of the Old Theatre, brandishing boards that spelled out why they were occupying it to prevent Sutherland from delivering his speech, while others were passing through the audience handing out leaflets.
Peter Sutherland is Chair of BP, and was controversially appointed back in May as the next Chair of the London School of Economics’s Council. The LSESU has been expressing dismay at this decision for months on the grounds of BP’s poor environmental credentials. The Young Green’s website lists some of its alleged ecological and social crimes, from the impact of the BTC pipline in the South Caucasus, to the oil leak from the Prudhoe Bay pipeline in Alaska. Despite repeated attempts to get him to engage more constructively with his future students, says the LSESU, Sutherland has systematically shown complete and arrogant disregard for their requests to engage. Hence the decision to occupy the theatre and prevent him from giving the public lecture.
Despite the “generous” offer by Sutherland’s spokesperson to discuss these issues with the students for an entire 10 minutes at the beginning of the lecture, made in full view of the public to secure their sympathy and exert more pressure on the occupying force, the student held their ground – literally – and refused to leave. When Sutherland eventually entered the stage and tried to deliver the lecture, the students simultaneously stood up and prevented the audience from seeing him (but not hearing him). At which point both Sutherland and I left the theatre. I don’t suppose he returned.
So what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what’s wrong:
1. The students: Sutherland’s environmental credentials might be poor, but BP is no Exxon, and at least there is a degree of debate surrounding its recent CSR moves since Lord Browne took the helm of the company, not all as sceptical as the one on CorpWatch’s website. No, the problem is that the students – by concentrating on the environmental issues – are ignoring the fact that Sutherland was the founding Director-General of the WTO, and as Director General of GATT was also instrumental in concluding the Uruguay GATT Round Negotiation, which probably did more harm to a lot of developing countries than any BP oil tanker. This is a crucial tactical omission, and would have prevented many people in the audience from labelling them as eco-fundamentalists.
2. Sutherland: I don’t know enough about his previous communication experience, but clearly he did all the wrong things tonight, from contemptuously offering 10 minutes to the students for them to vent their anger, so we can then get on with the important stuff, to eventually getting on stage proclaiming to be a defender of free speech, only to leave in a hurry as soon as he was not in full view of the public. The two much braver and captivating strategies would have been to either carry on delivering the lecture, regardless of the uncomfortable situation, or offer the students to spend the entire 1.5 hours discussing the issues that really mattered to them: his ideological credentials. Either would have seduced the public, perhaps even the LSESU, and turned him into a brave visionary. Alas, we saw little vision coming from him tonight.
3. The LSE: these kind of situations should not arise in the first place. If they do, it’s because it is in the interest of either party for it to happen. Public confrontations won’t lead to any form of resolution of a conflict: this is basic negotiation strategy. They should have either settled the matter prior to the lecture, offering real concessions to the LSESU, or cancelled the lecture altogether, without exposing their incompetence to the public. The excruciating shouts from the audience (especially an elder Indian gentleman who talked like a patronizing schoolteacher) to clear the stage followed by half-hearted mediation attempts by LSE staff were obviously only going to radicalize the parts. Next time, they should go to the library and pick up the Beginner’s Guide to Conflict Mediation.
(As for the other picture, the one opening the blog, I am sure you guessed it was taken in Paris in May 1968. Which makes me wonder: why do the French always unleash their anger on their cars?)
— Update —
Apparently Sutherland moved to the New Theatre to give the lecture in the end. But frankly I am not sure his insights into Europe in the 21st century added anything new to what has been said many times by many voices before…