Government plan to project #TimeToAct onto Big Ben for sexual violence summit was shelved over fears it would 'open the floodgates'

Angelina Jolie co-chaired last summer's summit on sexual violence in war

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Indy Politics

For the Government, it promised to be a spectacular way of galvanising public support for a major global summit on the issue of wartime sexual violence: projecting giant slogans onto the Big Ben clock tower and the Tate Modern.

But the Foreign Office’s ambitious plans had to be shelved because the people responsible for the use of the two London landmarks feared “opening the flood gates” to a host of other charities hoping to promote their causes, according to newly released documents.

As part of attempts to promote last summer’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was co-chaired by Angelina Jolie and discussed steps to reduce the use of rape as a weapon of war, the FCO wanted to project the social media hashtag “#TimeToAct” onto the two famous buildings.

The details of the failed negotiations, contained in a series of emails, emerged after a Freedom of Information request. One, entitled “Big Ben – bad news”, said that Westminster Council was not in favour of the stunt, arguing that it may be inundated with similar requests.

Summit co-hosts William Hague and US actress and Angelina Jolie visit exhibitors during the first day of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

The email was sent from one of the summit’s organisers to Emma Hopkins, the then head of the FCO’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, as well as various others. It read: “Apparently we require planning permission to do this and they have only granted permission to do so once before – for the Olympics. The council’s concern is that if they say yes to us, they’ll be opening the flood gates.

“Other images have been projected onto Big Ben in the past, but they have been unauthorised. This is obviously very disappointing as this was going to be a huge part of our public awareness activity. It would also have produced some great images for media.”

The council’s stance effectively overruled John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, who had already given his approval. The email’s author – whose name has been redacted – also asks the recipients if there is “anything that you can do” to reverse the decision, but it is unclear if any such efforts were made.

Another email, sent from an unnamed person at the Tate Modern to the FCO, showed that the art gallery had similar concerns. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to help with this one after all,” it read. “There are lots of difficult precedent issues involved as we have to decline so many requests to use the galleries for other causes.”

The hashtag was eventually projected onto a number of buildings around the UK during the week of the summit, including the Titanic visitor attraction in Belfast, the Welsh National Assembly, Exeter Cathedral, Manchester Town Hall, Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow and Liverpool’s Royal Liver Building. But the only building in London which bore the slogan was Millennium Mills, a derelict flour mill near the conference venue.

The Sexual Violence in Conflict summit, held at London’s ExCeL centre in June last year, was the largest ever conference on the subject of wartime rape, bringing together 1,700 delegates, 123 country delegations and 79 ministers. Jolie attended in her capacity as a special envoy for the UN on refugees.

At the conclusion of the meeting William Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, described it as an “extraordinary and inspiring” event and promised a “practical implementation” of the commitments made by delegates. But questions have since been raised about the £5.2m cost of hosting the summit and how much it actually achieved.

A spokesman for the Tate Modern said: “Tate is a charity and receives a high volume of requests to support other charitable causes. We are unable to accommodate all of these.”

A spokesperson from Westminster City Council said: “We received a request for a projection on the Palace of Westminster. As the planning authority we receive many requests of this nature and consistently advise against abusing our World Heritage Site or any other important listed buildings by using them for advertising projections, other than very exceptional circumstances.

“The Olympics was an example of an historic and global event that is unlikely to be held in London again in our lifetimes, and so on that occasion, we made a very rare exception.”