Thursday, January 24, 2013

Power Without Responsibility...

The National RSPCA has made an official complaint to the press regulator following a series of apparently intentionally misleading articles in the Telegraph.

No doubt this will be portrayed as an attempt to muzzle the free press and I think it's very important to be clear about why the articles were objectionable.

If the Telegraph had stated openly that they were running a campaign to repeal the Hunting Act and published the articles under that banner — i.e. as part of a series with a clear political intention that would have been one thing.

The issue is with the confusion of comment and "news" and with events being reported in what appears to be a deliberately misleading way - for example the way the original complaint about the RSPCA was reported as if it was being brought by an impartial group of MPs (rather than by ones who want to bring back hunting with dogs).

The sequence of articles

RSPCA trustees 'broke charity rules' over David Cameron hunt ...

December 21 2012 | Christopher Hope | News
Trustees of the RSPCA broke charity rules by sanctioning a £300,000 prosecution of David Cameron’s local hunt, according to a cross-party group of MPs and peers including Lord Heseltine, the former Cabinet minister.

[No indication that all the members of the group of MPs who complained are supporters of hunting and their claim that the trustees broke charity rules is reported as if it was a fact in the article heading].

Local RSPCA branch to close despite head office spending £326k ...

January 3 2013 | Christopher Hope | News
A local branch of the RSPCA is facing closure due to lack of funds, despite its head office spending hundreds of thousands of pounds successfully prosecuting Prime Minister David Cameron's local hunt.

[RSPCA Preston branch's animal home appeal used as ammunition against the National RSPCA]

Our once great RSPCA is being destroyed by a militant tendency ...

January 4 2013 | Charles Moore | Earth
The animal welfare organisation has badly lost its way under its new leadership

[More clearly identifiable as an opinion piece, rather than news, but repeats some of the false and misleading claims made in the earlier Mail article].

RSPCA 'is one of Britain's most complained about charities' ...

January 6 2013 | Christopher Hope | News
Britain’s biggest animal welfare charity is one of the country's most complained about charities, figures from charities regulator suggest.

[Logical fallacy; if you are in the middle ground you are liable to get furious complaints from both sides.]

RSPCA accused of double standards over hunt prosecutions ...

January 11 2013 | Alice Philipson | Earth
The RSPCA is more interested in social class than animal rights, it has been claimed, after the charity failed to prosecute members of the travelling community who were shown on television cock fighting and hunting deer with dogs.

[Opinion presented as fact; the real issue preventing a prosecution in the "Gypsy blood" case was the lack of access to unedited video materials. Edited videos can only be used as evidence if the perpetrator is clearly in-shot with the illegal act, otherwise you could frame people by splicing clips of them watching football into audience clips of illegal animal fighting.]

RSPCA summoned to meet head of charity watchdog after ...

January 11 2013 | Christopher Hope | Earth
Senior figures at the RSPCA have been summoned to see the charity watchdog to defend their decision to spend £326,000 on prosecuting David Cameron’s local hunt, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

[Once a group of MPs had put in a complaint the Charity Commission was pretty well bound to ask for discussions; it's not proof of any wrongdoing by the RSPCA]

Video: CA: This isn't what people give money to the RSPCA for ...

January 11 2013 | Earth
Tim Bonner from the Countryside Alliance says charity is pushing a political animal rights agenda by spending £350,000 to prosecute a foxhunting club linked to David Cameron.

[Slightly odd this; a recording via Skype with no attempt to probe the assertions made by Tim Bonner. Reminiscent of a party political broadcast or a straightforward advert.]

RSPCA warned on hunt prosecutions by charities watchdog ...

January 17 2013 | Christopher Hope | News
The RSPCA has been told by the charity watchdog that any decision to prosecute hunts must be a “reasonable and effective use of the charity's resources".

["Charity Commission repeats standard guidelines on charitable activities" is not really news.]

Figures just released by Third Sector Magazine appear to show that RSPCA general approval ratings rose slightly immediately after the successful Heythrop prosecution in early December but fell in the first week of January. This might be interpreted as a delayed reaction to the prosecution, but is at least equally likely to be the cumulative effect of the claims about destroying healthy animals in the Daily Mail (29th Dec) and the string of Telegraph pieces.

Delving more deeply into the figures given on Third Sector's brandwatch page it looks as though there was an initial increase in the RSPCA's popularity immediately after the case with dips following the hostile publications.

Interestingly there seems to have been a significant "PDSA effect" (some of the hostile news "buzz" explicitly asked donors to divert their money from the RSPCA to the PDSA or the Dogs Trust). This is a problem in its own right because the people doing it never explain that the PDSA is purely a veterinary charity for owned animals. The PDSA is an excellent charity and money donated to it will be well spent, but the propaganda writers are not the ones who will have to cope with owners who believe that PDSA cover is much more extensive than it really is.

Third Sector finishes by saying: "Only time will tell if all publicity is good publicity for the RSPCA. However, the negative stories it has generated over the past month in the aftermath of Heythrop suggests that it isn’t."

I think this misses the crucial point — it is a scandal if animal welfare laws can't be enforced because some newspapers will hold the animals in RSPCA shelters and hospitals to ransom if we do.

It's rather as if it was possible to force out local Police Commissioners by threatening to bankrupt the local NHS Trust.

I am beginning to think that the answer might be for the RSPCA to announce that it is not possible to continue to prosecute at all if we are not allowed to do it impartially and refer everything to the police and CPS. Most of the Inspectors work involves rescues or sorting out the problems of owners who can't cope and would continue.

The most obvious objections to this are a) that CPS/Police might decide there were not enough resources to fund animal cruelty prosecutions or b) that they might in fact end up prosecuting more people than the RSPCA does at present (because they would have less expertise in identifying which situations can be rectified without a prosecution) and c) that case animals might have to be kept in police kennels rather than purpose-built RSPCA animal homes or in foster homes. From a welfare point of view (c) is the most serious concern because animals may be held for very long periods of time before cases are brought to trial and it's preferable for them to be in a situation where their welfare is paramount.

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