Jim Carey examines the recent rash of calculated attacks on the RSPCA and the animal welfare movement.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 22-23.
By the time the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act finally came into force at the end of April, all its original clauses outlawing mammalian blood sports had been disgorged. Despite opinion polls suggesting the majority of the general public to be against mammalian blood sports, the pro-hunting lobby is extraordinarily powerful.
As one of the Bill’s principle advisors, the RSPCA reconciled itself to the removal of certain clauses in order to negotiate a way around the filibuster of parliamentary opposition; so making sure that at least some mammalian anti-cruelty measures reached statute.
The pro-blood sports parliamentary lobby, spearheaded by Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes, (Conservative MP for Wimbledon and Chairman of the British Field Sports Society) also forced the removal of the word ‘torture’ from the Bill, worried that such wording could have been used against blood sports enthusiasts in a court of law. In replacement, the new law now makes it an offence to “cruelly kick, beat, impale, crush, burn or drown any wild mammal” but not to goad a pack of hounds to rip one apart.
However, not content with their defensive success, the British Field Sports Society (BFSS) have gone on the attack with calculated manoeuvres designed to dismember the RSPCA.
Earlier this year the BFSS requested its supporter’s to seek membership of the RSPCA in order to gain the voting rights necessary to influence charity policy. As a result, the RSPCA noted an immediate blip in its membership pattern estimated at around 1,000 new members.
According to Richard Ryder, a previous Chairman of the RSPCA and now Chairman of the RSPCA’s Campaigns Committee: ‘There were attempts in the ’60s and ’70s to infiltrate the RSPCA but this time they appear more organised.”
Indeed, the British Field Sports Society now has a powerful new ally in the form of the Countryside Movement.
Launched last October, the Countryside Movement states its primary aim to be public education about countryside issues. However, the Movement’s ruling body is in fact staffed almost entirely by top names in the pro-hunting lobby. At the first two inaugural meetings, these included Max Hastings, editor of the London Evening Standard; Earl Peel, Chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust; the Duke of Westminster, President of the Game Conservancy Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation; and Hugh Van Cutsem, shoot owner and head of the Countryside Business Group (CBG). The CBG act as principle financial sponsors of the Countryside Movement, and were formerly known as the Country Sports Business Group. This group was launched by Eric Bettelheim, an American who joined the Atherstone Hunt whilst studying law at Oxford in the 1970s. He was quoted recently in a pro-hunting article in The Spectator: “If you can sell death in packages called cigarettes, you can sell field sports.… We need to communicate the importance of the countryside and of field sports at all levels of political and public opinion.… We are engaged in a struggle to influence opinion.”
The Countryside Movement’s Board of Directors also includes Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE, Chief Executive of the British Field Sports’ Society and John Smith, Director of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation.
The huge advertising campaign which trumpeted the Countryside Movement’s launch was orchestrated by one of the UK’s top advertising agencies, Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty. The deal with Bartle’s was struck by Alan Kilkenny, another key representative of the Countryside Movement. Kilkenny’s experience in public relations and news manipulation includes work with Lowe Bell Associates, the PR and parliamentary consultancy started by Thatcher’s ex-spin doctor Tim Bell. At the time, Bartle’s was also co-ordinating the advertising campaigns of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The instant IFAW became aware of the deal, they complained to Bartle’s. Senior partner in the firm, James Hegarty made attempts to placate the charity by saying his company would agree not to promote fox hunting. IFAW, however, were under no illusion that the Countryside Movement would ever advertise its concealed agenda anyway, subsequently cancelling their contract. The RSPCA who were also negotiating with Bartles at the time, immediately dropped out.
One month after the Countryside Movement’s launch, Country Life magazine published an article overtly critical of the RSPCA, suggesting the charity had been infiltrated by animal rights activists and were refusing membership to those who did not agree with such policies. Citing the article as his cause for concern, Sir David Steel MP, ex-leader of the Liberal Party and now Chairman of the Countryside Movement, wrote to the Charity Commission complaining about the RSPCA’s campaigns. At the same time Viscount Astor, until recently the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of National Heritage (including sports), also wrote a letter of complaint to the Commission, once again citing the allegations from the Country Life article. It is interesting to note that Ian Sproat MP, Viscount Astor’s predecessor at the Department of National Heritage and now Minister of State in the same department, stated: “Our party remains a true friend to field sports” (Hansard 26/6/95).
The new law now makes it an offence to “cruelly kick, beat, impale, crush, burn or drown any wild mammal” but not to goad a pack of hounds to rip one apart.
In the media coverage which followed this evidently significant Country Life article, there was no mention that the author, Michael Sissons, is a pro-hunting journalist who was not only present at the first two inaugural meetings of the Countryside Movement but now sits on its board of directors. In the leaked minutes of the inaugural meetings, Sissons talks of “the threat of the animal rights movement to many of the traditional activities of the countryside”.
The significance of the phrases ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal welfare’ is integral to the public relations war designed to discredit the entire pro-animal movement.
The RSPCA say the use of the phrase ‘animal rights’ has become publicly associated with images of “balaclavas and violence” and despite acknowledging such images to be largely manufactured, are keen to avoid any association.
According to Hugh Rogers from the Charity Commission: “Taking it to the extreme, animal rights activists take the welfare of animals to be supreme, regardless of any other factor involved. The reason why animal welfare charities are ‘charitable’ is not so much that they benefit animals, it is that by benefiting animals they also benefit man. People are suggesting that the phrase ‘animal rights’ presupposes an extreme activism. ”
Indeed, the phrase ‘animal rights’, once the terminology of philosophers and environmentalists alike, has for all intents and purposes been hijacked. When Michael Sissons spoke at the Countryside Movement’s meeting, asserting the “seamless nature of the animal rights movement”, the implication was clear - if animal rights means ‘balaclavas and violence’, then so to does the whole animal welfare movement.
As Chief Press Officer at the Charity Commission, Hugh Rogers is revealing as to the source of the hijacking: ‘The allegations started in the Country Life article suggested the RSPCA was heading off towards the animal rights lobby as opposed to animal welfare and was excluding would-be members that didn’t think that way, primarily the countryside lobby.”
Seen in the light of this sequence of events, complaints about the ‘excluding of members... primarily the countryside lobby’ appear as a calculated set up. For within a month, the British Field Sports Society had placed adverts in the hunting press calling for its members and sympathisers to infiltrate the RSPCA. By suggesting to the Charity Commission that the RSPCA were already being exclusive over membership, the BFSS paved the way for its members to infiltrate the charity without being blocked. Not surprisingly the RSPCA were furious at these calculated chess moves.
“The BFSS have tried this before, they didn’t succeed then and they won’t now,” asserts Melanie Whitehouse, the RSPCA’s chief press officer. As an active response, the RSPCA have initiated a campaign aimed at encouraging its 600,000 supporters to become active members, so counter-balancing the effects of infiltration.
Prompted by the letters from Sir David Steel and Viscount Astor, the Charity Commission wrote to the RSPCA asking them to answer allegations that “it has gone beyond legitimate campaigning in pursuit of its charitable objects in particular by getting involved in animal rights matters which go beyond proper animal welfare activities”. As a result of this pressure, the RSPCA dropped its official ‘Declaration of Animal Rights’, a major part of its policy document for the last twenty years.
The RSPCA was also forced to tone down its campaign against animal experimentation.
However, in its letter back to the Commission, the RSPCA defended its right to campaign against hunting on the basis that it was a cruel practice and that any reactive campaign would therefore “raise man’s moral status and outlook”, a practice encouraged under charity law.
Of the 1,000 new RSPCA members thought to have resulted so far from the British Field Sports Society call to infiltrate, only around 100 joined in time to wield a vote at this June’s annual meeting. However, if the trend continues, next year’s meeting may well witness a repeat of the bizarre state of affairs that occurred in the ’60s. During that decade the blood-sports lobby achieved such power within the RSPCA that huntsmen used to show up at the Charity’s annual meeting in jodhpurs and other hunting regalia.
“We do not like to see charities criticised unjustifiably because it beats at the whole principle of charity,” says Hugh Rogers. “The Commission feels that the RSPCA is entitled to campaign in respect of the hunting of foxes with dogs because it could be argued that such activities affect unnecessary cruelty, which afterall, is the whole point of the RSPCA in the first place.”
However, when the Charity Commission did reply to the RSPCA it declared the dropping of the Declaration of Animal Rights to be “appropriate”. It also said RSPCA membership should not exclude people with interests different to current RSPCA policy.
Interestingly, Chief Charity Commissioner, Richard Fries, says in the letter that they had written to Michael Sissons explaining the situation. However, as a freelance journalist writing in an avowedly pro-hunting magazine, why was Sissons owed any written explanation from the Charity Commission? The answer can only be found in the distinguished names sitting beside Sissons on the Countryside Movement’s Board of Directors.
Meanwhile the Countryside Movement has already been successful in forcing the UK’s most established animal welfare charity to curb its campaigning activities and go on the defensive. With the highly publicised campaigns over live animal exports and the recently manifest effects of intensive farming on animals (BSE), animal welfare has grown as a public issue. The vested interests harmed by these changes in public attitudes are, unsurprisingly, not amused. The RSPCA, as the most well known animal welfare charity in the UK, has consequently become the major target of those with market interests hindered by the animal welfare movement.
According to Richard Ryder: “The RSPCA may be seen to pose a major threat to commercial interests - pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies using animal experimentation, the agriculture industry with its factory farming and live animal exports, the hunting lobby and the fur trade - they have all become more alarmed by the recent increase in the effectiveness of the animal welfare movement. ”